Return of the Gentle Giants

Successful River Habitat Restoration

The unmanned camera bounced along a rock reef on floor of the St. Clair River. Researchers watched the monitor. Then, a long, dark shape came into focus and another and another. The looming figures were lake sturgeon. The project team whooped at the discovery: the restoration was working and much sooner than anticipated.

Science in Action

Reefs were being installed a few hundred feet away and yet, lake sturgeon — a rare and ancient native species in the Great Lakes — weren’t deterred by the sounds and stirred up sediment. The fish congregated on rock reefs installed as part of the restoration project in the St. Clair River, led by Michigan Sea Grant.

The project is focused on restoring fish spawning habitat in order to recruit several endangered or threatened fish species in Michigan, including lake sturgeon, mooneye, northern madtom catfish and river redhorse suckers. Valuable commercial and sport fish such as walleye, lake whitefish and perch are also expected to use the reefs for spawning.

A Series of Projects

Since 2003, Michigan Sea Grant and a team of public-private partners have planned and constructed a series of fish spawning reefs in an effort to increase populations of lake sturgeon and other native fishes within the Huron-Erie Corridor, the St. Clair and Detroit Rivers and Lake St. Clair. With each reef construction and subsequent monitoring, the team has learned and refined the projects to encourage native fish populations to spawn.

This initiative reflects more than 10 years of work performed by a multi-agency science team tackling increasingly complex questions over a large geographical area. It represents a successful, system-wide approach to restoration.

This latest restoration effort in the St. Clair River has demonstrated early success. Researchers have confirmed that the fish aren’t just showing up — eggs collected from the site have hatched viable sturgeon.

The Need for Restoration

“Obviously there was a need for more spawning habitat based on the immediate response by the sturgeon,” said Terry Heatlie, habitat restoration specialist with NOAA Fisheries Restoration Center, Great Lakes Regional office, the agency that provided funding for the project. “It’s special because this would not have happened without the restoration project, without restoring spawning habitat in the river.”

When given enough time, Heatlie said, some land or water issues heal themselves. With habitat restoration, that is not typically the case; it requires intervention. The construction was completed in June. Nine rock reefs were created, providing an acre of restored fish spawning habitat in the river.

The St. Clair River connects the waters of Lake Huron to Lake St. Clair, where water then flows through the Detroit River and eventually Lake Erie. The channel is a major shipping route and also forms a border between the U.S. and Canada. Because of its location in the heart of the Great Lakes, the restoration has potential to benefit waters upstream and downstream of the construction. The restoration efforts could also provide cultural and economic benefit, bolstering commercial and sport fishing and contributing to a higher quality of life in an area currently listed as an Area of Concern under the U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

Historically, vast marshes and swamps supporting an abundance of fish, birds, mussels and mammals lined the river corridor. In the early 1900s, the channels connecting Lakes Huron and Erie were widened and deepened to accommodate larger, modern commercial shipping vessels. Dredging and depositing the materials in different locations in the river damaged fish spawning sites — and subsequently fish populations. Dams along major tributaries blocked fish access, cutting off that spawning route as well.

Next Steps

Post-construction assessments are planned to ensure the Middle Channel Reefs are being used by a variety of fish species. Researchers have evaluated spawning behavior and data about walleye, perch, bass and suckers using the reefs.

More spawning reefs for native fish are being planned for 2013 and 2014. Michigan Sea Grant was recently awarded $799,226 to oversee the construction of additional reefs in the Detroit River near historic Fort Wayne.

The goal, aside from reestablishing the habitat, is to help remove the St. Clair River from the bi-national list of Areas of Concern.

The funding is through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Sustain Our Great Lakes Grant Program. Matching funds bring the total dollar amount of the award close to $1.6 million. The project will increase habitat for fish at all life stages, but especially spawning, for a variety of important sport and commercial species much like the previous spawning reef projects in different locations.

Connecting Partners

Michigan Sea Grant is the lead organization on the project, but the restoration effort has been a long-term collaboration among agencies, scientists and resource managers.

Project partners include: U.S. Geological Survey, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the University of Michigan, NOAA, SmithGroup JJR and Michigan Wildlife Conservancy.

Funding was provided by:

  • NOAA grant through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative: $880,233
  • U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Great Lakes Coastal Program: $75,000
  • Non-federal matching funds: $162,807

More Resources
Michigan Sea Grant Habitat Restoration page
Project Fact Sheet
Huron-Erie Corridor Initiative