Restoring Fish Habitat

Projects in the St. Clair–Detroit River System

Michigan Sea Grant is involved in a series of projects designed to restore fish spawning habitat for lake sturgeon, walleye, lake whitefish and other native fish. The team established spawning reefs at two additional points in the St. Clair and in 2015 will install another reef in the Detroit River.

2014 spawning reef locations:

  • St. Clair River – Pointe aux Chenes near Algonac, Mich.
  • St. Clair River – Harts Light near East China, Mich.

2015 spawning reef location:

  • Detroit River –  North East Grassy Island near Ecorse, Mich.

Video Overview of the Reef Projects

This video focuses on the successful Middle Channel fish habitat restoration project and the science and collaboration that made it a success. (Scroll down for more videos.)

The Need for Restoration

Many fish seek out rocky areas in fast-flowing currents in order to deposit their eggs during spawning season. However, many of the natural limestone reefs and rocky areas were destroyed in the Detroit and St. Clair rivers when shipping channels were constructed. Similar spawning areas in tributary rivers were made inaccessible as a result of dams or were damaged by development and sedimentation.

Despite massive population declines, the waterways connecting Lake Huron and Lake Erie continue to support the largest remaining population of lake sturgeon in the Great Lakes. Restoration efforts in these rivers could help rebuild native fish communities throughout the Great Lakes region.

Learning to Build Reefs

Many scientists believe that the recovery of lake sturgeon is hindered by a lack of accessible, high-quality habitat, including rocky habitat needed to successfully incubate fish eggs. The remediation plans for the St. Clair and Detroit rivers call for the construction of spawning reefs to compensate for the habitat lost historically and help rebuild degraded fish populations. However, creating more spawning habitat is not a straightforward process.

The location and design of spawning reef projects are based on studies of fish populations, models of river dynamics and lessons learned from completed projects. Three experimental reefs were built between 2004 and 2013 in the St. Clair and Detroit rivers, and each has led to important lessons that are being applied to upcoming projects.

Before designing a reef project, scientists study a proposed location to determine if conditions are favorable for restoration. After a reef is constructed, the team monitors fish activity and the number and types of fish eggs and larvae to evaluate whether the reefs are promoting successful reproduction of desired fish species. This research will assist future restoration efforts and help remediate Beneficial Use Impairments in the St. Clair and Detroit rivers, as outlined by the Area of Concern program and the U.S. Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement Act.

Collaborative Effort

By the end of the 2014, the project team will have created nearly 10 acres of spawning habitat at six locations in U.S. and Canadian waters of the St. Clair and Detroit rivers.

Partners include:

Project Funding:

Michigan Sea Grant is managing just over $2.3 million in grants to build approximately 6.5 acres of spawning habitat in three locations in 2014. Physical and biological assessment of the projects is supported by more than $2 million in additional funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Upcoming reef projects are funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, with additional matching support from partner organizations. Completed reef projects have been supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Great Lakes Fishery Trust, the Michigan Coastal Management Program, the Canadian government, BASF, DTE and the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy.



The following videos and many of the news coverage in the right column profile the Middle Channel Reef, which was constructed in May and June of 2012.

Sturgeon Spawning on New Reefs

USGS researchers inspecting the newly constructed reefs capture delightful footage: a large number of lake sturgeon already gathering on the reefs and fresh sturgeon eggs in the crevices of the rocks.

Reef Construction Begins

Interviews with project partners, clips of the construction vessels and some footage of lake sturgeon taken near the Bluewater Bridge are featured.

Scientists Study Fish in St. Clair River Before Construction

Out of the Blue - click to view video

This Out of the Blue video illustrates how project partners are studying lake sturgeon and juvenile fish communities in the St. Clair River and the role of Michigan Sea Grant.


Public Outreach

Featured Publications

Environmental Assessment
Remediating Native Fish Spawning Habitat in the St. Clair – Detroit River System (June 2014)

Project Photos (Flickr sets)

News Articles

St. Clair Detroit River System Initiative

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