Grayling Fish Hatchery

The Grayling fish hatchery, a presence on the East Branch of the Au Sable River in Grayling for 99 years, is once again going through significant changes. And, as is the case with many changes, this one is not without issues.

The hatchery was started in 1914 by Rasmus Hanson, an area lumberman, and others with intentions to bring back Grayling to the Au Sable River. Ironically it was lumbering that was a major cause of the demise of Grayling in the first place. Henry and Edsel Ford, Thomas Edison, and William Mershon were members of the club organized to build the hatchery. The Grayling effort failed and the hatchery started raising brown trout and brook trout. In 1924, the club sold the hatchery for $10,000 to the State of Michigan who continued to run it until the mid 1960’s when it was closed. At its peak, the hatchery had raceways on both sides of North Down River Road.

In 1983, after lying dormant for nearly 20 years, the State turned the hatchery over to Crawford County with the stipulation that it be operated as a tourist attraction. The County ran it until 1993 when the Grayling Recreation Authority took over management. GRA also runs Hanson Hills southwest of Grayling. It was during this time that a $460,000 DNR grant was used to refurbish sections of the hatchery and fill in raceways in other parts. Also during this period, a hatchery committee formed with hopes of having a museum, aquarium, and conference center located on the hatchery grounds. These dreams were never realized.

In the Spring of 2012, the Crawford County Avalanche printed an article announcing that GRA was no longer interested in operating the hatchery and giving losing $8,000 over two years as the reason. The article went on to say the hatchery would be closed unless someone or some group came forward to keep it open. A subsequent article in the Avalanche told readers that Harrietta Hills Trout Farm (HHFF), located south of Mesick, MI, was interested in operating the hatchery during the tourist season (Memorial Day to Labor Day) with a stipulation allowing them to keep fish in the raceways twelve months a year. The County (very) quickly signed a 30-month lease agreement with HHFF allowing the hatchery to open that June. An informative meeting was held on August 16, 2012 at the Crawford County Courthouse. About forty people representing the county, the DNR (including Real Estate, Fisheries, and Hatcheries), Dept of Agriculture and Rural Development, Harrietta Hills, and the community were in attendance. The proposed change in operation was explained along with the process and many questions were responded to.

At the August meeting, Dan Volger, an owner and the general manager for Harrietta Hill Trout Farm, explained that he wanted to grow fish in Grayling to be marketed to grocery stores and restaurants. Also, that in order for him to run the hatchery as a commercial aquaculture facility several things had to happen. The DNR would have to agree to a Memorandum of Understanding that would amend the original agreement the State had with the County to allow for commercial activity at the hatchery. A new lease between the County and HHFF would have to signed. Mr. Volger explained that he wanted a long-term lease from the County; initially for 25 years although more recently a term of 15 to 20 years has been mentioned. HHFF would have to apply for and receive a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit from EPA but administered by the Michigan DEQ. The NPDES permit is required for an aquaculture operation holding over 20,000 pounds of fish. The Grayling hatchery has operated below that limit without need of an NPDES permit since the 1980’s. HHFF would like to max out the capacity of the hatchery’s raceways, which could mean as much as 200,000 to 300,000 lbs of fish per year.

The various State agency people in attendance gave very positive statements supporting the proposed changes and in responses to audience questions explained that they could foresee no negative effects to the river that the increased production would cause. In summary, this change in operation of the Grayling Fish Hatchery was going to be a win win win situation; the facility would be kept open for tourists, it would result in jobs for Grayling, it would be an excellent example of private-public partnering, and it would result in a significant increase in aquaculture in the State of Michigan.

That MOU between Crawford County, MDNR, and HHFF was signed in December 2012. The NPDES permit which has not been applied for as of late January, 2013, is expected to take five to six months to move through the system after application and, as part of the process, has opportunity for public comment. The Crawford County Commissioners are currently working on the lease agreement.

Conservation groups within the watershed (including the Anglers of the Au Sable) are not taking nearly as rosy a view as the County, State, and HHFF regarding these proposed changes for the hatchery. In fact, as was stated at the beginning of this article, there are a number of issues that cause great concern. These issues fall under three headings; the “deal” Crawford County gets from HHFF, fish passage, and the potential for operational problems.

Crawford County seems willing to turn over the hatchery operation to HHFF for, if the current lease is an indication, $1 per year for the term of the lease. Meanwhile, HHFF will continue to charge admission and sell fish food to visitors. According to Mr. Volger, with very little advertising and a shortened season, the hatchery had $28,000 in gross receipts from tourism in 2012. The County Commissioners should get a better deal for County taxpayers and two possibilities include getting a percentage of “the gate” or a greatly reduced admission fee with free fish food.

For a number of years, the DNR has been working towards reconnecting the East Branch of the Au Sable River with the rest of the watershed. The dam at the hatchery has prevented this. The State has demonstrated a commitment to fish passage and stream reconnection by spending close to a half a million dollars to remove the Salling dam and the dam at the Mill Pond thus giving fish access to the entire Mainstream. The State has invested some $200,000 for instream habitat improvement in the East Branch upstream of the hatchery in anticipation of dam removal or alteration at the hatchery. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service has committed $20,000 for a fish passage project at the hatchery and Huron Pines has applied for a $30,000 DNR grant for the same. Engineers have begun to develop plans for a project that would provide necessary water for hatchery operation as well as control during high and low water events and allow for fish passage. A successful fish passage project at the Grayling hatchery would have a very positive impact on the fishery for both the East Branch and the Mainstream. The County Commissioners should insist on the completion of fish passage as part of the lease language.

Operational issues include degraded water quality resulting from pollution due to excess food and/or fish waste, species of fish grown in the hatchery, and disease. Going from 20K pounds of fish to 2-300K pounds is a huge increase with a commensurate huge increase in fish waste. It is critical that both adequate systems to remove waste and a program for independent, regular water quality monitoring be included in the lease. The species of fish grown in the hatchery is critical. The Michigan Aquaculture Development Act, Act 199 of 1996, lists 55 species of freshwater fish (and 14 species of salt water fish) that can be legally raised in Michigan. If an event were to occur resulting in a fish release, i.e. an act of God, operator error, etc., there needs to be assurances that the hatchery fish would have no negative effect on wild trout in the river. Therefore, the lease should include language limiting allowable species to brook trout, brown trout, and rainbow trout. Filling the raceways with the maximum pounds of fish results is a highly stressful situation for the fish. The combination of stressed fish and the increased amounts of waste mentioned earlier dramatically increases the potential for disease includingMyxobolus cerebralis or whirling disease. This could have devastating consequences for the fishery. The lease should include language insisting that only disease free certified fish be allowed in the hatchery and that stringent disease monitoring protocols be established.

So far, there have been a number of actions taken in response to these proposed changes. The Au Sable River Property Owners’ Association sent a letter to the editor of the Crawford County Avalanche asking the County Commissioners to make a better deal for the County. Steve Sendek, a retired DNR Fish Biologist responsible for the Au Sable River watershed, spoke to the Crawford County Commissioners explaining many of the issues mentioned above, urging caution, and offering assistance. Mason-Griffith Founders Chapter of Trout Unlimited met with Dan Volger to hear his responses to a list of concerns and also sent a detailed letter to the County Commissioners explaining these concerns and asking that they be considered as they finalize the lease agreement with HHFF. Members of the community have begun to talk one on one with their Commissioners. The Anglers of the Au Sable is finishing a letter to Keith Creagh, the Director of the DNR, asking for support for disease issues, water quality monitoring, and fish passage. Several groups have discussed a coalition to fund independent water quality monitoring.

While the hatchery, run as a three-month tourist destination, is probably a benefit to the community, operating it to capacity 12 months a year has definite risks. People (including members of the Anglers) who have been following this situation since the beginning are hopeful that the County Commissioners will acknowledge those risks and build safeguards into any agreements with Harriatta Hills Fish Farm. The State of Michigan cannot be depended on to adequately oversee the hatchery; the involved departments are operating with dwindling resources and depend on minimum standards. As we all know, the Au Sable River deserves better than minimum standards. It is therefore incumbent on the County to step up and see to it that the River is protected.
David Smith, MGF Director

This article first appeared in the Anglers of the Au Sable’s Riverwatch 65, February 2013