Then and There, Here and Now – Spring Newsletter 2016

If you are searching for the origins of the current debate, two important and apparently unrelated events stand out:

  1. In 1982, the first open net-pen fish farm begins operations in the Great lakes.
  2. In 2014, the operator of the Grayling Fish hatchery applies for a permit to increase capacity.


Great Lakes Fish Farms

In 1982, a Canadian fish farmer named Gord Cole built a Norwegian- style fish cage, similar to an open net fish pen, on the eastern end of Lake Huron in Parry Sound. Experts believe that this was the first use of this technology in fresh water to produce fish for food. In time, several producers established similar operations in the North Channel of Lake Huron near Manitoulin Island.  These continue to operate under Canadian regulation

To date although no fish farms currently operate in the Michigan waters of the Great Lakes, two companies have submitted pilot proposals for consideration that in total would raise nearly 900,000 pounds of penned rainbow trout

  • Cold Water Fisheries of Ontario has proposed building two net pens in Lake Michigan’s Bay De Noc near Escanaba.
  • Aquaculture Research Corp (ARC) of Ann Arbor wants three net pens near Rogers City

In addition to the profit motive, proponents of expanded Great Lakes aquaculture cite the needs of a growing world population for protein and the desire to protect a threatened wild fishery from overharvesting.

Those opposed point out the need to protect the Great Lakes and other fresh water resources from the harmful chemicals that invariably result from sizable concentrations of fish in a confined space.

Neither of these companies has begun operation in the Michigan waters of the Great Lakes and must receive permission from the state legislature before they can take action on either proposal. Michigan regulatory agencies like the DNR and DEQ lack the authority to grant a permit thanks to an agreement over fishing rights between the state of Michigan and tribal nations.

There is currently legislation pending in the Michigan House of Representatives and Senate on both sides of the issue (see summary below). At this point given the level of opposition, it is hard to believe that Great Lakes fish farms will ever be a reality. On March 9, for example, the three Michigan Quality of Life agencies – Natural Resources (MDNR), Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD), and Environmental Quality (MDEQ) – issued a report. The conclusion: “The Michigan QOL agencies do not recommend pursuing commercial net–pen aquaculture in the Great Lakes at this time.”

Grayling Fish Hatchery

Dan Vogler is the owner of Harrietta Hills LLC based near Cadillac, a fish farm raising rainbow trout. His operation has earned certification in the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP) regulated by the Michigan Department of Agriculture. The goal of the program is to encourage sound environmental practice in the agriculture industry.

According to Jodi DeHate, MAEAP technician with the Wexford Conservation District, Mr. Vogler’s farm is livestock certified and meets the same requirements for minimal environmental impact as a MAEAP certified beef or dairy cattle farm.

His company is also the leaseholder for the Grayling Fish Hatchery on the AuSable River. He operates the hatchery as a local attraction drawing 4000 visitors annually while producing approximately 20,000 pounds of trout for human consumption. Mr. Vogler applied to The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality for a permit to increase production to 300,000 pounds of fish biomass per year.

In 2014, the DEQ granted his request but before he could begin operating at increased capacity the ruling  was challenged in court by a coalition of two environmental organizations: The Anglers of the AuSable; and The Sierra Club. An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) heard arguments from both sides over several days and is scheduled to deliver his judgement on or before August 15.  He may revoke or confirm the permit at that time.

Ed Eisch offered expert testimony on fish hatchery operation at the hearing. Ed is Fish Production Program Manager for the Michigan DNR and operates the Platte River Fish Hatchery in Beulah. Although he refused to predict how the judge would rule in August, he did offer his perspective, as expressed to the ALJ during several hours of testimony.

His primary concern is with water testing methodology. The DEQ mandated that the operator sample and test the water directly downstream from the hatchery for phosphorous content and suspended solids. These are both byproducts of fish waste. When it dissolves you have phosphorous, when it does not you get suspended solids.

Everyone is aware of the threat of high levels of phosphorous from the reports of algae blooms in Lake Erie resulting in unsafe drinking water. The presence of suspended solids in the water has not received the same attention as phosphorous content but it represents a very serious although different threat to the wild fish population of the AuSable River System. According to Ed, suspended solids can provide habitat for a particularly nasty parasite, which is the source of whirling disease, a proven killer of rainbow trout.

Ed believes they are testing for the right things and that the mandated maximum levels are acceptable. His issue is with the frequency and duration of water sampling. He refers to the standards at the Platte River Hatchery where they sample continuously over a three-day period twice a week. In other words, they sample the water six days out of seven.

The DEQ would require only weekly sampling and self-monitoring for the Grayling operation.  In Mr. Eisch’s opinion, this level of protection is insufficient to ensure the health of the resource.

Other stakeholders express more urgent and fundamental concerns that begin and end with the river itself. The AuSable is by any definition a blue ribbon trout stream, arguably the best cold-water fishery in the state of Michigan.


Conservation groups including the Anglers of the AuSable, Michigan Trout Unlimited, and the Sierra Club believe that the threat imposed by a high volume flow-through fish farm positioned at the headwaters of The AuSable River is intolerable.


Even with state of the art filtering, wastewater treatment and water sampling technology, the consequences for the stream and the wild fish population would be unpredictable. The Grayling Fish Hatchery, as permitted by the DEQ would operate with minor modification to the original technology and with none of the critical safeguards in place, flushing untreated wastewater (up to 8.6 million gallons daily per the DEQ) directly into the stream.


The DEQ has acknowledged that water quality will suffer as a result but consider that a necessary outcome in order to “support the identified important social and economic development in the area.” Many sportsmen feel the AuSable River deserves better.