GRAYLING — A fish farming company began to move its rainbow trout out of the raceways at Grayling Fish Hatchery after it recently conceded defeat in a lawsuit that targeted the fish-rearing operation on the revered Au Sable River.
A four-year legal battle between Harrietta Hills Trout Farm LLC and a nonprofit sport fishing group concluded last week when the company agreed in a mediated settlement to sell its lease with Crawford County for $160,000 to Anglers of the Au Sable. According to the settlement, the nonprofit group will operate the hatchery as a tourism and educational attraction, and while visitors will be allowed to visit and feed trout, no commercial fish farming will happen there.
The business first arrived in 2012 with plans to produce upward of 300,000 pounds of rainbow trout per year, up from the approximate 70,000 pounds at present. The operation obtained a state permit but was tied up in court by the Anglers group, which argued the aquaculture project would pollute the river and harm native trout.
“We had no fear that scientifically, we are right,” said Dan Vogler, owner of Harrietta Hills. “We were simply trying to use a facility already on the landscape.”
Vogler said he is disappointed but decided continuing the hatchery’s operation wasn’t worth the cost of fighting two opposition lawsuits. The settlement will be “almost enough” to cover his legal fees, he said.
The company had been releasing fingerling rainbow trout into the hatchery’s raceways and harvests them when they grow to 1.25 pounds, selling them to restaurants and a grocery distributor.
Harrietta Hills must vacate the hatchery in Grayling by year’s end, according to the settlement. The company maintains a separate aquaculture facility in Wexford County.
“It’s a really exciting new chapter in the history and life of the Grayling hatchery,” said Joe Hemming, president of the Anglers group, who described the proposed fish farm as “one of the most serious threats that the river has ever seen.”
Opponents contend expansion of the hatchery’s operation would send large volumes of feces and uneaten fish food into the river, potentially exposing wild fish to illness and boosted phosphorus levels.
A permit issued by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality — and challenged by the Anglers — required steps to prevent river contamination, such as water testing and installation of areas in the raceways where fish waste would be settled and vacuumed out.
The hatchery is on the east branch of the Au Sable, about 1,200 feet upstream from the river’s main branch. Water flows directly into the hatchery through eight raceways before exiting, without a way to close off the hatchery from the river’s current.
That’s precisely the problem, said Marvin Roberson, forest ecologist with the Sierra Club’s Michigan chapter.
“Our main objection is it has a captive fish population connected by surface water and kept next to a wild fish population,” Roberson said. “There’s no way to shut this off if something goes wrong.”
Concerns about the spread of disease in the planned highly concentrated fish farm — primarily the risk of whirling disease — meant the operation simply couldn’t safely be done at that location, Roberson said.
The same concern does not exist for Vogler’s other fish farm site, Roberson said, where the trout are raised in a spring-fed pond that eliminates the risk of escapement and the spread of disease to wild fish populations.
“If this was the only way to grow fish for consumption, this would be a different conversation,” he said.
Hemming agreed with Roberson that fish farming should only be done where filtration systems and other technology can protect water quality. The Au Sable River is the wrong place, he said.
“We are river warriors and we will do what’s needed to protect this river when it is threatened,” Hemming said.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.