New St. Clair River reefs to spur sturgeon spawning

Alright, sturgeon … they made your bed, now spawn in it.

Michigan organizations and agencies are building nine rock reefs in the Middle Channel of the St. Clair River to bolster native fish spawning and restore habitat. The Middle Channel of the river connecting Lake Huron to Lake St. Clair supports one of the largest remaining populations of sturgeon in the Great Lakes.

To give sturgeon more spawning grounds in the St. Clair River, organizations and officials are building underwater reefs made of limestone and fieldstone. Photo: Brian Bienkowski

Led by Michigan Sea Grant, the team will finish the nine reefs this week. Each will be about 40 feet wide, 120 feet long and 2 feet high. Made of angled limestone and rounded fieldstone, the reefs are an effort to return the river to a spawning hotspot – just like in the good ol’ days.

“This gives us a chance to bring back the sturgeon numbers … without stocking,” said Mike Thomas, lake sturgeon coordinator with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, which is a project partner.

About a century ago, the St. Clair River and the Detroit River – which is between Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie – were straightened, widened and deepened for shipping. This harmed the places where fish spawn, as limestone and other rocks were displaced and damaged.

But the prehistoric-looking sturgeon, which can weigh between 30 and 100 pounds, still hang out in this Lake Huron to Erie corridor.

At the Blue Water Bridge, where Lake Huron spills into the St. Clair River, there are about 30,000 adult sturgeon, said Justin Chiotti, a fish biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, another project partner. There are about 15,000 in the Middle Channel and 3,000 to 5,000 in the Detroit River, he said.

Mike Thomas of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources explains what lake sturgeon populations tell us about the health of the Great Lakes. (Video: Brian Bienkowski)

Male sturgeon live about 55 years and females can live 80 to 150 years. These populations are important because the lakes aren’t getting sturgeon from other Michigan rivers.

There are no Michigan tributaries contributing sturgeon to Lake Huron, said Jim Boase, the Huron-Erie river corridor coordinator at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A lot of the rivers feeding into Lake Huron can’t support sturgeon spawning because of dams.

And it’s the same story with those feeding Lake Erie, Boase said.

Rounded fieldstone.

Angular limestone.

The reefs are made of loose rocks piled up. A gentle slope down either side keeps sediment from accumulating. Fish eggs are protected by the gaps between the rocks. In addition to sturgeon, walleye and whitefish will benefit from the long piles of rocks, said Jennifer Read, the acting director and a research coordinator at Michigan Sea Grant.

The right rock size is important to keep away unwanted parasites.

“We had to make sure there was no rock less than 2 inches in diameter,” said Bruce Manny, a research fishery biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, another project partner. “We didn’t want to provide sea lamprey spawning spots in the reefs.”

Sturgeon, and mustaches, used to be more common in the Great Lakes region. Photo: Brian Bienkowski (of a Michigan Sea Grant archive photo)

The two-year project is funded by $1,040,000 from federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grants. And this project may even get the St. Clair River off the dubious Great Lakes Areas of Concern list.

“One of the hardest beneficial uses to remediate is habitat,” said Paulette Duhaime, vice president of the St. Clair Area of Concern Binational Public Advisory Council.

The St. Clair River is on target to be delisted in 2014, Duhaime said.

“This is one of the projects that will make that possible.”

Reef success will be monitored by comparing spawning rates in the Middle Channel to places without the artificial beds. Researchers will see if adult fish are hanging out near the reefs, see how many eggs there are and monitor the health of young fish.

But there is confidence that the reefs will work.

“I think it’s pretty much a no-brainer,” said Terry Heatlie, a habitat restoration specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, another project partner. “This area will have a lot of fish spawning in it.”

And for sturgeon lovers, that is great news.

“Sturgeon are just amazing,” said Jim Felgenauer, president of the St. Clair-Detroit River Sturgeon for Tomorrow organization.

“I can catch a sturgeon and 20 to 40 years from now, my grandson can catch the same fish,” he said. “Now that’s special.”

5 thoughts on “New St. Clair River reefs to spur sturgeon spawning

  1. I agree with Harold, and have told the MDNR in the past to make them catch and release for the very reasons Harold stated. I was not aware that a catch and release fishery, isn’t elegible for tackle tax money (Dingell/johnson) Snake River is catch and release sturgeon, Bonefish in Florida. Catch and release is a very prudent thing to do to protect any fishery, how does this disqualify a fishery plan? The Dingell Johnson is for protecting the resource?

  2. Harold, the reason there is an extremely limited season and creel limit is so the state can avail itself of fishing license and Dingel-Johnson funds to research and manage the sturgeon population. Without a season and allowable catch there would be no monies available for a non-game species. The DNR now has mobile hatcheries and rearing facilities for sturgeon that stage at certain streams, using the stream water to raise the young sturgeon before stocking in that stream. This to imprint on the sturgeon fingerlings the water chemistry of that stream where they should return to spawn when sexually mature. Because of the extremely long life and slow maturity of these fish it will be a slow, long term endeavor. I was involved with some of the preliminary research beginning 20 yrs. ago, before I retired.

  3. It is ludicrous that the Michigan DNR and the Natural Resources Commission sanctions the killing of a state-listed threatened species. Even though there is generally a lack of information on the migratory patterns of Lake Sturgeon in the Great Lakes, and there is insufficient information regarding population levels (see below), it is common sense that recovery efforts would be much more successful if mature sturgeon weren’t removed from the existing stock. Sturgeon recovery is especially hampered by the fact that an adult female Lake Sturgeon usually does not reach sexual maturity until 24 – 26 years, and as many as 33 years.

    Granted, Lake Sturgeon harvest is limited to one per person per year–and is also limited to Lake St. Clair, St. Clair River, Otsego Lake, Black Lake (spear fishing allowed in Feb., with overall limits), Menominee River and Wisconsin-Michigan Boundary Waters. But allowing any take of a threatened species is unconscionable. Instead, all Lake Sturgeon caught in Michigan should be subject to “catch and release”. This prehistoric fish deserves better protection from our so-called professional fisheries managers.

    And if the DNR wants to give some added excitement to fishermen, instead of a fishing derby on Black Lake where several large sturgeon are harvested, they should sponsor a fishing tournament where several Lake Sturgeon are caught on hook and line and then implanted with radio transmitters so that the migratory habits of this extraordinary fish can be better understood.

    Spawning by Lake Sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens) in the Detroit River
    by N. M. Caswell, D. L. Peterson, B. A. Manny and G. W. Kennedy

    http://www.epa.gov/ecopage/aquatic/lkstrugeon/index.html

    snippets:

    “a lack of current data on Great Lakes sturgeon stocks has hindered rehabilitation efforts”

    “Today, lake sturgeon populations are estimated to be at less than 1% of their former abundance (Tody 1974), and in Michigan, lake sturgeon are listed as a threatened species (Hay-Chmielewski and Whelan 1997).”

  4. Legends persist from the early days of Lyons, my small hometown in central Michigan, of Native American children amusing themselves of a summer by taking rides on 12-foot sturgeon in the Grand River there. I don’t believe anyone has seen a sturgeon in the Grand in my lifetime, or maybe since the river was dammed in 1880, or when the railroad dredged and straightened the river in the 1920s. Maybe, if this program is successful, restoration and/or remediation could be done elsewhere, too.

  5. Great news! Now I know exactly where to catch them! How much does sturgeon caviar sell for these days?

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