The St. Clair and Detroit Rivers have a history of biodiversity and housing some of the region’s most prized sports fish. The rocky habitat areas within the fast-flowing rivers are ideal spawning grounds for lake sturgeon and many other Great Lakes Fish. At least, they were up until the natural limestone reefs, and rocky areas were destroyed in the construction of shipping channels. According to the Graham Sustainability Institute, similar spawning areas in the tributary became inaccessible with the installation of dams or damaged by development and sedimentation.
Furthermore, the river saw significant water quality declines due to contamination of the river. The EPA reports that sediment, including heavy metals, toxic organics, and E. Coli bacteria, were all found in the river waters. The contaminants impacted fish flavor and overall health—ultimately leading to the implementation of fish advisories. If the direct damage to species wasn’t enough, “industrial, navigational, urban, and agricultural developments in the AOC had [also] resulted in the degradation of tributary, wetland, river, shoreline, and benthic habitat,” according to the EPA.
Sturgeon populations declined in the early 1900s, and current populations are roughly 1 percent of historical levels, reports the Graham Sustainability Institute. Many conservationists attribute the population loss to be a result of habitat loss, and restoration efforts must be preceded by habitat rehabilitation. Spawning reefs are one of the leading solutions to population declines and have the potential to rebuild degraded fish populations.
The Graham Sustainability Institute was involved in a restoration project that ran from 2001-2018. The project was led by a consortium of partners that used adaptive management processes to develop and study restoration efforts and allowed the process to evolve over time. Many local, regional, and federal groups were included in the project. According to the EPA, the project led to the successful installation of three fish spawning reefs to provide better habitat conditions for many Great Lakes species, including threatened Lake Sturgeon.
The success of the various projects that emerged to fill the ecological need for rehabilitation can be gauged from fish egg and larvae sampling. Early results were promising, but some were hesitant to put complete faith in the programs. However, the naysayers were proven wrong in the years following the beginning of these projects as fish populations grew thanks to more secure spawning grounds.
The St. Clair River Reef Restoration project was successful in its mission to restore sturgeon populations. According to the Times Herald, the St. Clair River has become a safe haven for lake sturgeon. Even further, local populations of all species appear to be thriving alongside the growth in lake sturgeon. Andrew Briggs stated to the Times Herald that “[Lake Sturgeon] often are an indicator of good water quality. They require spawning habitats other species of fish require so it’s often an indicator of a good, heathy ecosystem if you have a good lake sturgeon population.”