Participants in one of the boat tours of the St. Clair River Stugeon Spawning Reef
Lake sturgeon wasted no time moving onto a newly constructed spawning reef in the St. Clair River near Algonac. By mid-May fisheries biologists verified sturgeon on the first sets of rock placed in 30 feet of water near Dickinson and Harsen’s Islands. The findings came just two weeks after the project was celebrated on May 1, 2012 with a public reception on the shoreline and boat tours of the reef area.
The reef was constructed of limestone and other types of rock and was modeled after a reef installed three years ago at the head of Fighting Island in the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. The Fighting Island reef was the 2008-2009 Featured Project of the Michigan Wildlife Conservancy and the first Canada-U.S. jointly funded fish restoration project in the Great Lakes. The Conservancy was the only U.S. non-profit organization to make a substantial financial contribution to the Fighting Island reef and also provided valuable technical assistance during the design and cost analysis phases of that unique project.
The Conservancy also played a key role in the St. Clair River reef construction, administering a $75,000 construction grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Coastal Grant Program. The Conservancy worked with University of Michigan Sea Grant Program personnel as well as the Fish and Wildlife Service. The total cost of constructing the reef was more than $335,000. Most of the cost was covered by other federal grants which will also fund a long-term research project to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of reef-building in the Great Lakes.
Once common and widespread, the lake sturgeon dramatically declined around 1900; it now has a limited distribution in the Great Lakes region, and is a threatened species in Michigan waters. Inland populations in Michigan are sparse and restricted primarily to the Manistique, Menominee, Sturgeon, and Indian Rivers in the Upper Peninsula, and the Cheboygan River watershed (including Burt, Mullet, and Black Lakes) in the Lower Peninsula. Occasionally, sturgeon show up in other rivers such as the Kalamazoo, Grand, Muskegon and Saginaw.
The St. Clair River historically served as an important spawning grounds for many other native species as well as sturgeon. But channelization, loss of coastal wetlands, filling/armoring shorelines, water pollution, and dredging limestone bedrock and gravel caused the sturgeon population to drop to less than one percent of its former abundance. Many conservationists doubted whether the area’s once famed lake sturgeon fishery could ever bounce back. However, with improvements to water quality over the past 40 years, federal scientists have begun to test whether small, strategically-placed spawning reefs can benefit the unique species. The Fighting Island reef’s success helped pave the way for the St. Clair River reef and this new effort may be a catalyst for a series of reef projects in the future. Young sturgeon are already coming off the reef at Fighting Island and planners expect the St. Clair reef to also be successful.
“Sturgeon are amazing,” said Jim Felgenauer, President of the St. Clair-Detroit River Sturgeon for Tomorrow organization. “Catching a sturgeon is an unique experience, because after I release it, my grandson might catch the same fish 20 to 40 years from now.” Some individual sturgeon have lived 150 years.
Lake Sturgeon on the new spawning reef