Below the Surface – Restoring an Urban River
By Lynn Vaccaro and Stephanie Ariganello
Restoration Projects are ramping up all over the Great Lakes. What does restoration look like? How do we know what works, where to begin and when to stop?
Consider the waters that lie between Lake Huron and Lake Erie. It is a stretch that includes the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River. It is a passageway, a corridor from the blue wilds of Lake Huron to the warmer shallows of Lake Erie. Before Europeans first came to the area in the 1600s, vast marshes and swamps lined waterways abundant with waterfowl, fish, mussels and mammals.
Today, three million people and far less flora and fauna live within the Huron-Erie Corridor. Former expanses of wetlands have been drained and developed. Shorelines are armored with metal and concrete pilings. The river bed has been blasted to create shipping channels and tributary rivers have been dammed.
The corridor is a great example of the need for and challenges of environmental restoration.
What is Restoration?
In the most familiar sense, restoration is to bring something – say a piece of furniture – back to its former glory. But because ecosystems are so complex and so dynamic, there is no clear snapshot of what a restored habitat should look like. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), ecological restoration involves renewing natural areas that have been lost or degraded, and reclaiming their functions and values as vital ecosystems.
Efforts to rehabilitate spots around the region recently received a major boost from the federal government, administered through the EPA. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has funneled $475 million into a diverse suite of projects, including several led by Michigan Sea Grant and its partners.
On paper the regional restoration goal is simple: to address the most significant environmental problems and restore the health of the Great Lakes ecosystem. But defining a truly healthy ecosystem is not straightforward, and success requires a wide range of programs, careful planning, long-term commitment, and sound science to guide the work. All of these are components of restoration.
A Restoration Case Study: Sturgeon in the River
Many years ago Bruce Manny, a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Great Lake Science Center, was drawn to studying the Huron-Erie Corridor by a mysterious native fish – the lake sturgeon.
Lake sturgeon is the largest and most long-lived fish in the Great Lakes. They were once incredibly abundant throughout the region. Settlers began harvesting the fish in the 1880s in such high numbers that by the early 1900s, populations dramatically crashed. That overharvesting, pollution, the changing riverscape and the sturgeon lifecycle itself – they take decades to mature – have contributed to a precarious population.
“When I started working in southeast Michigan, lake sturgeon had this ethereal quality,” Manny said. “They were so rare and so strange that if they were ever caught, the pictures made it into every local newspaper – it was a really big deal.”
By the 1990s, people were pessimistic about the future of native sturgeon. Although adult sturgeon were occasionally caught in the Detroit River, most people believed the population was close to gone. However, Manny heard that small lake sturgeon were occasionally caught in western Lake Erie. He began to wonder if a group of sturgeon was still returning to the river to spawn. It was a glimmer of hope and he ran with it. For the past 20 years, he has been studying lake sturgeon to determine what environmental improvements could help populations recover in the Great Lakes.
To learn more, see: Lake Sturgeon
Years of field work revealed that three areas still exist in the Huron-Erie Corridor where adult sturgeon gather to spawn – two in the St. Clair River and one just off Zug Island in the Detroit River. From these and other studies, Manny and fellow scientists developed an idea of what attracts romantically inclined sturgeon.
They found that sturgeon in the corridor prefer deep water and rocky reefs where crevices protect the eggs and fast-moving currents provide a steady supply of oxygen. Construction of shipping channels had long destroyed many of the natural rocky reefs that were attractive to spawning native fishes, including sturgeon. In two of three known spawning sites, fish were depositing eggs on piles of coal cinders dumped in the river by shipping barges, apparently because there were no better options.
Manny, a team of USGS scientists, Michigan Sea Grant and many other partners joined together to conduct an experiment. They set out to encourage more sturgeon spawning by constructing appealing habitat.
In June of 2004, the team constructed a series of reefs just upstream of Belle Isle in the Detroit River, using three different types of rocks. By most accounts, the reefs worked beautifully. The outcome was a little surprising. Many different types of native fishes showed up to reproduce. Whitefish spawned on the reefs – a first in over 80 years in the Detroit River.
But, there were no sturgeon.
New and Improved
Clearly the artificial reef was an accepted spawning spot for some fish species. But where were the sturgeon? Manny and his team believed they just had not found the Belle Isle reefs. So, they revised the strategy and decided to place future reefs as close as possible to areas known to be sturgeon hangouts and to build even larger reefs so they would be easy to find.
More research was conducted. Movements of tagged adult sturgeon that seemed ready to spawn were monitored. They congregated in an area of particularly fast moving water just north of Fighting Island on the Canadian side of the Detroit River. This would be the site of the next project.
In 2008, Manny and his team created another series of rocky reefs that were each four times larger than the Belle Isle reefs. Within a year, the USGS team caught sturgeon near the reefs so ready to spawn they were leaking sperm. Even as the restoration team celebrated this accomplishment, they began wondering what would happen to the eggs and larval fish.
Ed Roseman, a biologist at the USGS Great Lakes Science Center, collected some of the eggs and carefully raised the young sturgeon in tanks in his lab in Ann Arbor.
“With Ed’s help we’ve begun to understand what happens to fish larvae after they emerge,” said Manny. “For the first weeks of their lives they are at the mercy of the current, so we need to make sure the larvae will float into hospitable nursery areas, such as wetlands.”
The Next Stage
Manny and his team are using everything they have learned about sturgeon to develop a third reef project, which will be constructed in the St. Clair River during spring 2011. With grants from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, Jennifer Read, Assistant Director of Michigan Sea Grant is leading the reef construction work, while Manny and his team will study the fish community before and after building the reef.
“When we first started this work 10 years ago, our thinking was more one-dimensional; we wanted to build a safe place for sturgeon to deposit their eggs,” said Read. “But now we’ve come to see habitat restoration as a real multi-dimensional problem. To create a sustainable sturgeon population we need to think about the needs of the eggs, the larvae, the juveniles and the adults, and this involves thinking beyond the river,” said Read.
That “beyond the river” approach includes rigorous monitoring to help the restoration team determine if sturgeon reproduction and survival was successful. It is a critical piece to the restoration – from a wider perspective, monitoring is crucial in understanding how one specific project fits into a larger restoration effort.
In restoration, there is no finish line. Like the sturgeon spawning reefs projects, most restoration efforts focus on controlling a specific threat such as invasive species or improving a natural area to achieve a particular outcome. While ecological restoration is still a young science, more work is being done to unify restoration efforts. With the national restoration initiative focused on the Great Lakes, people in the region will likely hear more about projects in their communities. Further Michigan Sea Grant restoration initiatives will be profiled in Upwellings next year.
Sturgeon Swimming Free
Earlier this fall, 17 young lake sturgeon were released into the wilds of the Detroit River, while nearly 200 school children cheered them on. The event, attended by U.S. Representative John Dingell and U.S. Senator Carl Levin, represented the latest milestone in a 10-year experiment to restore populations of the threatened fish in the heart of a major metropolitan area.
The young sturgeon came from eggs deposited on a newly constructed underwater reef in the Detroit River. By collecting the eggs and raising the larval fish in tanks, scientists confirmed that the artificial reefs had inspired sturgeon spawning – female sturgeon found the rocky reefs to be an acceptable place to drop their eggs, male sturgeon were available to drip sperm on the eggs, and the eggs were viable.
Ed Roseman, a biologist at the USGS Great Lakes Science Center, had collected some of the eggs and carefully raised the young sturgeon in tanks in his lab in Ann Arbor.
“We learned that the little suckers grow fast, but they are incredibly picky eaters,” said Roseman. “It really made us wonder – are sturgeon larvae in the river finding the food they need to survive?”
Roseman’s research helped inform where artificial reefs should be placed in order to help larvae survive and thrive. Another reef will be constructed in 2011 and further study of juvenile sturgeon will continue.
– Lynn Vaccaro
Briefs: News From Around Sea Grant
What’s for dinner?
There have been many talks about the potential invasion from Asian carp over the past few months. Extension Educators Dan O’Keefe and Mark Breederland have been featured on several panels and highlighted during conferences focused on carp. Michigan Sea Grant Director Dr. Jim Diana has also been in the spotlight, educating people around the state on the potentially invasive species.
The most talked about of all of these events, though, was likely the “Fight ‘Em & Filet ‘Em” dinner hosted by the Grand Rapids restaurant San Chez and the West Michigan Environmental Action Council. For one night only, Asian carp was featured as the dinner special. The chef compared the flavor and texture of the carp to that of catfish.
Meanwhile in Lousiana, where several species of Asian carp have become established, Roy Kron from Louisiana Sea Grant reported they may be able to make something good out of a bad situation.
They canned dozens of carp recently, and if it passes taste tests, the canned fish will make its way to countries in need of emergency food supplies. Louisiana Sea Grant is working with Operation Blessing on the project. The first of the canned carp may be shipped to hospitals and orphanages in Haiti.
After cracking open a can, Roy reported: “Well, just came from the Asian carp taste test… and it wasn’t bad. The carp was canned in a light tomato sauce with cayenne pepper, and that seemed to neutralize any fishy taste. There also was only a slight hint of tomato and cayenne flavor. One of the tasters pointed out that the carp would make good fish tacos. It also wouldn’t be bad over rice or in a stew…”
Call for Proposals in January
Michigan Sea Grant will be releasing a Request for Proposals in January of 2011. Researchers are encouraged to submit proposals for integrated assessments addressing a range of current issues in Michigan, including water quality, fisheries, harbors, restoration and climate change. Partners in local, state and federal agencies and other organizations helped identify specific topics. Projects must be led by a researcher from a university in Michigan. Research teams are encouraged to include diverse specialists.
Early in January, the Request for Proposals will be posted on our website.
See: Michigan Sea Grant Research
NOAA Awards $2 Million for Efforts to Fight Invasive Species
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently awarded five grants to National Sea Grant College Programs to combat high-priority aquatic invasive species identified by natural resource managers in each region.
Great Lakes Sea Grant programs will receive a $384,000 grant to educate professional and tournament anglers about the need to prevent non-native species from invading waterways. Grant money will also be used to conduct workshops on prevention at fishing tournaments.
Wisconsin Sea Grant will lead this effort in collaboration with the Sea Grant programs in Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois-Indiana and Ohio.
Join the Fellowship
Michigan Sea Grant is currently recruiting applicants for several fellowship programs that will start in summer 2011 or February 2012. We welcome applications from graduate students with a wide range of backgrounds (science, policy, law) and a strong interest in Great Lake, coastal or marine issues. Application deadlines are in late January and February.
As a fellow, you will receive:
- Real-world experience in natural resource management and policy
- Terrific career-building and networking opportunities
- A community of like-minded fellows and alumni
- Competitive compensation and benefits
Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship – This one-year program matches graduate students with hosts in the legislative or executive branches or other institutions in Washington, D.C. Fellows focus on policy projects related to ocean, coastal and Great Lakes resources.
NOAA Coastal Management Fellowship – Fellows work for two years with agency hosts around the U.S. in state coastal zone management programs. Projects will address coastal resource management issues such as climate change, coastal hazards or land-use planning.
Great Lakes Commission–Sea Grant Fellowship – This one-year fellowship is based at the Great Lakes Commission in Ann Arbor. The Commission works to advance the environmental quality and sustainable economic development of the Great Lakes region. Fellows contribute to research coordination and policy analysis activities.
Colin Hume, a Knauss Fellow nominated through Michigan Sea Grant was recently placed at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services office as Fish Habitat Policy Fellow in the Division of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Conservation. Hume recently obtained a master’s degree from the University of Michigan with a focus on Conservation Biology and Environmental Policy and Planning. He will start the assignment in Washington D.C. in January of 2011.