Species Need Habitat Restoration to Survive a Changing Climate

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

frogs climate change
Spring peeper frogs may find their spring mating calls disrupted due to climate change. Credit: Brad Carlson

Human development has fragmented natural environments across the Great Lakes basin, causing problems for species that rely on those habitats to survive. These problems may be exacerbated by a changing climate. This hasn’t snuck up on the people and organizations working on restoring habitat and connectivity though – climate change has been at the forefront of their planning for nearly a decade.

On the United States side of the Great Lakes, funding through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) has helped support habitat restoration efforts for the past seven years. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has used GLRI funding to assess how climate change might affect habitat restoration and protection efforts. Groups applying to receive GLRI funds for habitat restoration should consider how climate change might impact their work in the future, said Heather Braun, program manager for coastal conservation and habitat restoration at the Great Lakes Commission in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

“Project applicants have a variety of resources to look to for guidance of developing ‘climate-smart’ projects,” Braun said.

What’s challenging is the uncertainty of the future; some models say water levels may increase and others say they may decrease, so restoration projects should be designed to accommodate both possibilities. For example, Braun said a wetland restoration project might include a provision for a water control station or water pumping station to allow the wetland to continue functioning in a low-water future. Restored habitats also need to be able to withstand increased intensity of storms: high winds, strong waves, seiches (or waves pushed from one end of a body of water to another) and ice.

Reducing habitat fragmentation is an important part of restoration work, and for the GLRI. Braun said special consideration has been given to projects that are adjacent to one another to improve connectivity – particularly in Michigan’s Saginaw Bay and Ohio’s Maumee Bay. With a changing climate, a variety of plants and animals will be seeing their habitable ranges change – connectivity can improve their chances to live in areas they can survive.

According to the 2013 Environment and Climate Change Canada report, “How Much Habitat is Enough?,” species across North America are already responding to climate change with shifts in ranges, longer stays in breeding grounds by some birds, and earlier mating calls by amphibians. But with the complexity of species, their specific needs, and environments, it’s incredibly difficult to determine what effects will be coming down the line for specific regions and habitats.

The report suggests a precautionary approach that would protect and restore more complete ecosystems beyond the minimum amount of forest, wetland, grassland and riparian areas needed to maintain species populations above an extinction level threshold. A more connected and less fragmented ecosystem is more resilient to climate change, the report says.

Setting aside habitat fragmentation, there would ostensibly be greater biodiversity as a result of global warming in more northern regions like Ontario, said Jeff Bowman, research scientist with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, and faculty at Trent University. But habitats fragmented by human development in areas along the Great Lakes – such as the coastal marshlands of the Huron-Erie corridor – would inhibit movement north, which will likely result in less biodiversity than would otherwise be expected.

While the Great Lakes serve as a natural barrier for some of this movement, Bowman said, animals can still cross in some key areas like connecting channels. Animal crossings can occur in the Rainy River system west of Lake Superior, the St. Marys River, the western and eastern connecting channels of Lake Erie, and the east end of Lake Ontario, Bowman said.

Landowner initiatives can provide important safeguards, such as the A2A Collaborative in New York, Ontario and Quebec. The collaborative is working on a wildlife corridor between Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario and Adirondack Park in New York, including Thousand Islands National Park in the St. Lawrence River. Species have historically used this route to travel north and south across the North American continent. Having a stable connection across latitudes and habitats can shore up the resiliency of biological populations in the face of climate change, according to the project website.

A2A map
Map of the A2A Region. Credit: Algonquin to Adirondacks Collaborative

The northward expanded range of animals such as southern flying squirrels and bobcats into northern ranges is forcing them to interact with similar existing species. Already, Bowman said, there are reports of hybrids between the southern and northern flying squirrels in Ontario, and there are concerns that bobcats expanding their range north might hybridize with lynx.

“Hybridization is one of the predicted effects of climate change,” Bowman said. “And the flying squirrels are one of the first demonstrated examples of what we call climate change induced hybridization.”

There’s also a disconnect between how quickly animals can move into new areas and how slowly plants do. Bowman said that southern flying squirrels are, for example, getting ahead of trees they live alongside and are thus unable to find the acorns to eat that they rely on in their southern ranges – in turn causing them to die in the winter. So even though the squirrels could find pleasant temperature ranges and some food in their new homes, they ultimately must wait for the trees they rely on to permanently settle in these new regions.

flying squirrel
Due to climate change, the southern flying squirrel has started moving north into habitat already occupied by the northern flying squirrel. Credit: North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission

Bowman added that some amphibians seem to be taking advantage of the expanding breeding season by emitting mating calls earlier in the year, potentially allowing them a competitive advantage for food supplies over their rivals that must wait.

Habitat restoration project managers need to balance near-term restoration goals with an increasingly variable climate and consider what species will be well-placed to survive in in the future. This includes anticipating the spread of invasive species and planning for long-term management, Braun said.

Invasive species such as Phragmites thrive on habitat disturbances and low water levels, Braun said. Anticipating such changes and improving coordination of invasive species management efforts is important to reduce encroachment on newly restored areas or in existing habitats stressed by climate change, disturbance or fragmentation already. The species’ almost virulent spread and rapid infestation rate makes that a challenge, leading to a push to track its spread and coordinate efforts across the Great Lakes.

Improving coastal resiliency to climate change  for the Great Lakes basin is an ongoing effort for all the states and provinces around the waters. Improvements done thoughtfully would make the challenges down the line more manageable.

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.

A Land Trust Protects Lake Erie Through Conservation and Restoration

By Chris Collier, Black Swamp Conservancy

Robust land conservation involves an ongoing focus on protecting and restoring properties. Success is measured not only in terms of projects completed but in making a meaningful difference in the community for people and the environment. For 25 years, Black Swamp Conservancy has worked to protect Ohio’s natural heritage and ensure that it is preserved for future generations.

Formed in 1993 by citizens concerned with the rate of rural land development, the organization has protected more than 17,000 acres of land across northwest Ohio. Most of the work throughout our history has been protecting land through conservation easements with private landowners. These agreements permanently protect lands like natural areas and family farms from development. The conservancy also has used these agreements to create public parks, increasing public access to natural areas. This work has resulted in the protection of some of northwest Ohio’s best kept secrets and scenic landscapes.

lake erie shoreline black swamp conservancy
Lake Erie shoreline. Credit: Art Weber

In the past decade, harmful algal blooms have come to define the Western Lake Erie basin. With this ongoing threat to our region’s water quality, the conservancy has placed a new focus on projects that incorporate strategies to improve water quality. This resulted in the organization’s first foray into large-scale restoration. Using funds from the US Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, US National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and the Clean Ohio Green Space Conservation Program, more than 60 acres of wetlands and natural stream corridor and 80 acres of upland buffer habitat have been restored at our Forrest Woods Nature Preserve near Cecil, Ohio. This project is located at the confluence of Marie DeLarme Creek and the Maumee State Scenic River, which means the restored wetlands are treating all the water from the Marie DeLarme Creek watershed before it enters the Maumee, the largest tributary to Lake Erie.

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Restoration of 60 acres of wetlands and 80 acres of upland buffer habitat at Forrest Woods. Credit: Black Swamp Conservancy

(See also: “Integration is the Solution: Ontario’s Integrated Watershed-based Approach for Managing Natural Resources”)

With the success of the Forrest Woods project, the conservancy is planning several new restoration projects, including the next phase of our Forrest Woods project to restore more than 4,000 feet of floodplain along the Maumee River. Additionally, we are working with the Sandusky County Park District to restore two sites along the Sandusky River that bookend the city of Fremont. This will create two new public parks with fishing and paddling access, improve water quality and provide spawning and nursery habitat for important sport fish, including walleye and white bass. We also have formed a partnership with the Wood County Park District to restore a 10-acre, edge-of-field wetland, as well as 10 acres of associated upland, at the district’s Carter Historic Farm. This project will be used to demonstrate how wetland restoration and agriculture can coexist on the same property to improve water quality without impacting farm viability.

These projects demonstrate our commitment to protecting the region’s natural and agricultural heritage, which has led the conservancy to launch a new farm access program. This program will assist aspiring farmers hoping to create sustainable farms that market their products locally, by helping them overcome the most common barrier to entering the agricultural world: the high cost of land. To accomplish this, the conservancy will purchase farms, restore marginal areas, lease the land to beginning farmers, and work with tenant farmers to establish agricultural best management practices to protect water quality, improve soil health and reduce erosion. This program will help to protect Ohio’s agricultural heritage, improve environmental quality and bolster local economies.

black swamp conservancy paddles canoe rivers streams ohio
Black Swamp Conservancy leads regular paddles along the rivers and streams of northwest Ohio. Credit: Black Swamp Conservancy

These are but a few of the ways that Black Swamp Conservancy is working in northwest Ohio to improve our communities. This work would not be possible without the support of generous donors, volunteers and landowners.

If you are interested in finding out more, contact us at (419) 833-1025 or bsc@blackswamp.org. Learn more at BlackSwamp.org.

Chris Collier is the conservation manager at Black Swamp Conservancy, headquartered in Pemberville, Ohio.

Lake Trout Recovering in Southern Lake Michigan, Face Challenges to the North

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

lake trout brimley
A lake trout fry being reared in the Pendills Creek National Fish Hatchery in Brimley, Michigan. Lake trout continue to be reared and stocked in the Great Lakes to restore the native top predator. Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service/Katie Steiger-Meister

A study of lake trout stocked into Lake Michigan has found a wild population rising in the southern basin of the lake, but struggling in the north where sea lamprey predation and fishing pressure prevents most fish from living long enough to spawn.

The native top predator in four of the five Great Lakes, lake trout are important ecologically and as a game and sport fish. The lake trout – also known as siscowet, lake char, or mackinaw – inhabits cold, pristine, oxygen-rich waters and mature slowly. That slow growth rate led to a population crash in the mid-20th century, when overfishing and invasive sea lamprey predation ravaged the species. A change in the food web due to other invasive species also has impacted common food sources for lake trout. Fishing limits and sea lamprey control programs have helped reduce pressure on the species, however, and restoration efforts are paying off.

US Fish and Wildlife Service fish biologist Matt Kornis said lake trout have been stocked into Lake Michigan for decades in a bid to restore the species. Some of these fish were tagged with coded-wire tags at the hatchery beginning in the mid-1980s. Those tagged fish were stocked in four important spawning areas – one in the southern refuge, a cluster of reefs in the dead center of the lake; one in a northern refuge, a cluster of reefs in the northeast part of the lake; one at Julian’s Reef in offshore Illinois waters; and a nearshore shoal in Wisconsin waters called Clay Banks. The lake trout came from genetic remnant stocks from lakes Michigan and Superior alongside lake trout from New York’s Seneca Lake.

“Not only is the restoration timeframe (from the 1960s to now) long, but the spatial scale is very large,” said US Fish and Wildlife Service Senior Biologist Chuck Bronte. “We’re talking about one of the largest lakes in the world (fifth by area). That’s a big scale for trying to restore a keystone predator.”

In Lake Michigan, Kornis said the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), along with state and tribal partners, have been cooperatively sampling lake trout using gillnets every year since 1998 to analyze the recovery of tagged fish and get a better idea of survival rates and where they were found in relation to where they were stocked. They’ve found that the survival of stocked lake trout and positive growth in their population were heavily dependent on where the fish were stocked.

“The fish that were stocked in the northern refuge … had a substantially lower survival rate that we attribute to sea lamprey predation and fishing harvest,” Kornis said. “The downside is that there is poor survival in northern Lake Michigan, but the upside is we observed high survival of fish stocked in the southern basin, where we also saw more recent increases in wild recruitment (where fish spawn naturally).”

northern refuge lake michigan trout
The northern refuge of Lake Michigan, highlighted here, is one area where lake trout restoration efforts have hit a snag due to sea lamprey predation and harvesting by humans. Credit: University of Wisconsin-Madison

The problem in the northern refuge with sea lamprey stems in part from a failed dam on the Manistique River which allows sea lamprey access to a large, ideal system to spawn in. The Great Lakes Fishery Commission has been controlling sea lamprey populations in the Great Lakes by using lampricide in spawning habitats and physical barriers, but the Manistique system is not easy to treat with lampricide due to its size, making the dam a vital barrier to keeping lamprey from getting into the river system in the first place. Bronte said that dam will be replaced and upgraded within the next few years, shutting out sea lamprey from that spawning habitat that replenishes their numbers, in turn dramatically reducing their numbers in the area and helping lake trout in the northern refuge recover.

The trout harvesting is done primarily by Native American tribes exercising Great Lakes treaty fishing rights guaranteed under the 1836 Treaty of Washington, Bronte said, which are negotiated jointly by the tribes, the state of Michigan and the US Department of Interior as a consent decree. The current agreement was approved in 2000 and has seen minor revisions as circumstances change in the lakes; it runs until 2020.

Kornis said only a handful of older, mature lake trout were caught in the northern refuge, which means the fish don’t have a large enough parent population size to properly breed. A fecund population, he said, needs a high abundance of older fish from multiple age classes, something that’s been seen in southern sites over the past 10 years but not yet seen in the northern refuge.

“You can stock fish, but if they don’t survive to maturity that’s a problem,” Bronte said. “If you want lake trout restoration (to work) you’ve got to let them live longer and get to higher densities.” Lake trout take six to 10 years to become sexually mature.

All lake trout stocked everywhere in Lake Michigan – and not just those four reefs – started being tagged in 2010, but since lake trout take around five years to reach harvestable size and thus enter the fishery, those fish have yet to be included in the surveys, Kornis said.

Lake trout may be benefitting from Lake Michigan’s reduced alewife population too, as that invasive fish will prey on lake trout fry. Adult lake trout predation on alewives also can lead to deficiency of thiamine, a critical vitamin. Thiamine deficiency reduces the survival of the eggs and larvae of affected parents, Kornis said, an affliction known as “early mortality syndrome.”

Success stories in restoring lake trout to other Great Lakes, thanks to Canadian and US cooperation and planning, provide a sense of optimism for Lake Michigan. Binational programs to limit the harvest, control sea lamprey and stock the fish have been successful in Lakes Superior and Huron, according to Jolanta Kowalski, senior media relations officer at Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. Stocking was particularly important given how the fish was nearly wiped out in Lake Huron and had lost much of its adult population in Lake Superior when stocking began in the 1950s.

The lake trout population in Lake Huron is recovering well, Bronte said, with roughly half or more of the fish in the lake being entirely wild. While part of that is related to the alewife population collapsing, sea lamprey control efforts and a consent decree limiting the amount of lake trout that could be harvested also played a role in allowing the parental stocks to recover there. Bronte believes that same situation (low sea lamprey and fishing mortality) may be playing out in the southern end of Lake Michigan to some degree, but the recovery is still in the early stages and requires a low mortality rate to be successful.

Kowalski said Lake Huron still seems to have higher sea lamprey marking rates in the North Channel of Lake Huron than officials would like, suggesting there are still tributaries where the invasive species is reproducing with limited controls. Ontario still stocks lake trout in the Georgian Bay and the North Channel of Lake Huron, though the species has recovered enough in the lake’s main basin that it has ceased there.

Lake Superior’s lake trout population is fully restored and large scale binational stocking ended in the mid-1990s, Bronte added, providing hope that rehabilitation efforts can achieve similar success elsewhere.

restoration efforts trout
Restoration efforts have already helped adult lake trout rebound in Lake Huron and Lake Superior, and managers are hopeful the species can make a comeback across all of Lake Michigan over time. Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service/Katie Steiger-Meister

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.

Return of the Rapids: Restoration Success on the St. Marys River

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

new bridge sugar island under construction
A new bridge to Sugar Island was under construction in 2016 at the St. Marys River. The bridge replaced an aging causeway. Credit: Chippewa County Road Commission 

A portion of the St. Marys River has been restored as fish spawning habitat and recreational space, with a new bridge that provides access to Sugar Island. The work has removed one more obstacle toward delisting the river as an Area of Concern (AOC) by Canada and the United States.

The St. Marys River is a binational waterway that connects Lake Superior to Lake Huron between Michigan and Ontario. Following construction of the Soo Locks in the 1850s to help ships traverse the river, pollution and a variety of changes to the river led to it being designated an AOC by the two nations in 1987. That designation tasked the two nations with restoring the river to a healthy state.

The portion of the river known as the “Little Rapids” was degraded when a mile-long causeway was installed in 1865 with only two 6-foot (2 meter) culverts to allow water to continue flowing. Effectively this turned it into more of an embayment with little water movement, degrading what had been an example of rare rapids habitat, according to a fact sheet from the Great Lakes Commission (GLC).

GLC Program Manager Heather Braun says the new bridge restores the flow through the rapids and should provide greatly improved spawning and foraging habitat for walleye, lake sturgeon, lake whitefish, yellow perch, northern pike, cisco, Pacific and Atlantic salmon, along with forage fish such as suckers and minnows and the invertebrates they feed on.

Swift-water rapids habitat historically could be found throughout the St. Marys River, but is now relatively rare. Upwards of 90 percent of this habitat was lost due to past construction activities such as building the Soo Locks and causeways, dredging and urban development, all of which destroyed three of the four St. Marys River rapids. Restoring the rapids has been a priority of a Binational Public Advisory Council which coordinates activities necessary to delist the AOC. Rapids habitat, characterized by high velocity, shallow depth and a rocky substrate provides optimal spawning conditions for critical populations of fish species in the St. Marys River. According to the GLC, of the four original rapids areas on the river, only a portion of the main rapids has continued to serve as habitat, though gate upgrades by the US Army Corps of Engineers are expected to improve those as well.

Around 20 years ago, members of the Soo Area Sportsmen’s Club started talking about improving the fishing in that part of the river, according to Alicia Krouth, engineer with the Chippewa County Road Commission in Michigan. There had been talk of installing fresh culverts that would have improved water flows at the time, but without funding it went nowhere. Over time, the culverts continued to degrade, making it more vital to either replace the culverts or the causeway. Since the culverts were typically submerged, they also were hazardous to people on the water upstream, Krouth said.

“What we had before were two failing and debris-filled culverts that didn’t allow much for flow,” she said. “It acted more like a weir than a free-flowing culvert.”

Fast forwarding to 2013, the GLC received Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding through a regional partnership with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to support habitat restoration in the St. Marys River, said Braun. Other rapids restoration sites along the St. Marys River had been evaluated, she said, but this one was the only feasible site where rapids habitat could be restored.

“In addition to the historic alteration to the natural flow of the river (in the past), the causeway was beginning to fail and the road commission anticipated some improvements were needed over the next several years,” Braun said.

earthen causeway removed
The earthen causeway was removed in favor of a bridge. In addition, the approach to the bridge was reconstructed to improve the side slopes to improve safety shown here in the construction process. Credit: Great Lakes Commission

Through the bidding process, Krouth said contractors indicated it would be less expensive to build a bridge rather than construct new culverts large enough to achieve the ideal water flow and repair the causeway in the process. The causeway was originally built to direct water toward the shipping channel, but changes to the river since the 1860s rendered it obsolete.

Thanks to funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and NOAA by way of the GLC, the Chippewa County Road Commission completed the construction of a bridge to replace the causeway in 2016. About $9.4 million was provided through the GLRI. The work was completed almost entirely within the year, with only some additional paving left to do in 2017.

Before and after shots of the Sugar Island crossing and its effect on the water
Before and after shots of the Sugar Island crossing and its effect on the water. Credit: Great Lakes Commission

Lake Superior State University has taken on ecological monitoring duties before, during and after construction and restoration to determine what sort of ecological changes have taken place since the bridge was completed, Braun said. The university is focused on native fish species and invertebrates, the algae didymo (Didymosphenia geminata), which has seen nuisance blooms in the St. Marys River) and invasive species.

Krouth said she’s heard local residents remark on seeing more fish in the water and that fishing has improved this year. More mayflies and other invertebrates integral to the food web have shown up in the Little Rapids area, she added, which also serve as a good indicator of water quality.

Braun said this project was likely the last habitat restoration project needed on the US side of the St. Marys River to remove the “loss of fish and wildlife habitat” beneficial use impairment (BUI) for the river. A draft BUI removal recommendation for the dredging restrictions BUI from Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) notes that aside from habitat and dredging, the United States still has to resolve four other BUIs: restrictions in fish and wildlife consumption, fish tumors or other deformities, degradation of benthos, and degradation of fish and wildlife populations.

According to Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), regulatory changes in how industrial wastewater is treated and handled and upgrades at the local municipal wastewater plant have dramatically reduced water quality issues on Canada’s side of the river, along with changes to a local steel mill’s practices. Restoration along the Bar River tributary using trees to reduce sedimentation and improve habitat has been completed, and planning is underway for additional habitat restoration work. ECCC also has been developing a plan alongside Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change to manage contaminated sediments in the river. ECCC anticipates that all restoration work on the Canadian side of the river should be completed sometime after 2020, said Jon Gee, manager for ECCC’s Great Lakes AOC program.

The latest Michigan DEQ remedial action plan document from 2012 doesn’t estimate how long overall US work will continue. But based on the best information available, the GLC believes the Little Rapids restoration work was the final on-the-ground project required on the US side to delist the St. Marys River Area of Concern.

In a river that has lost upwards of 90 percent of the rapids habitat, Braun said restoring up to 70 acres with the bridge’s completion is a major victory for those rare fish that need it to spawn, and for the river as a whole.

See a presentation below on “Restoring the Little Rapids in the St. Marys River” by Mike Ripley of the Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority.

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.

Lessons Learned from Reef Restoration Efforts in Huron-Erie Corridor

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

Researchers hold up a lake sturgeon, a species that has suffered a loss of spawning habitat in the Huron-Erie corridor over the past century. Credit: Justin Chiotti, US Fish and Wildlife Service

Since 2004, nine artificial reefs have been constructed in the St. Clair and Detroit rivers. These reefs have aimed to replace fish spawning habitat destroyed decades ago when shipping channels were created. Even though there have been unexpected problems along the way, people involved with these projects say they’ve learned what worked and what didn’t and have applied those lessons to new projects.

The initial test reef was built in 2004 near Belle Isle on the Detroit River, with an eye toward boosting native fish populations – particularly lake sturgeon, lake whitefish, northern madtom and walleye, according to a report released in 2015. Since the 2004 project, the people behind those reefs now go through a more thorough process for siting and placement. This includes advice from sea lamprey control experts to make sure that habitat isn’t built for those species to spawn too, said James Boase, fish biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Fortunately, sea lampreys ignored the test reef, and have since been found favoring the natural reef near the headwaters of the St. Clair River.

The test reef also consisted of three kinds of rock. Based on monitoring data of fish spawning, successive reefs have settled on using 4-8 inch (10-20 centimeter) pieces of limestone for construction materials, being the most useful to native species. Limestone is also what the natural reefs consisted of along the rivers prior to the channels being dug out.

Siting is an important factor that has been refined over the course of several projects. Reefs have been built parallel to the water flow to reduce the risk of being disrupted from water or sediments washing downstream. But a 2012 artificial reef at the St. Clair River’s middle channel has been largely filled in by sediment in the years since it was built. Boase said about two-thirds of the reef there has been buried, though madtom catfish are continuing to use the remaining portions. Another reef built at Fighting Island in 2008 has seen similar problems with sediment on its eastern section.

Researcher James Boase pulls up a gill net on the Detroit River
Researcher James Boase pulls up a gill net on the Detroit River. Credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service

“We’ve integrated (river expert) scientists from the University of Michigan and from the (US Geological Survey) folks out in Denver, Colorado, to assist with siting design, and looking at different reef shapes and locations within the corridor to prevent that (loss) from happening,” Boase said.

Ed Roseman, a USGS research fishery biologist, said those two reefs were constructed to go across the channel from shoreline to shoreline, in a bid to make sure that fish noticed they were there. Due to sediment plumes out of the Thames River in Ontario, however, silt was deposited in portions of the reefs.

The Fighting Island reef was expanded in 2013 toward the island side where sedimentation wasn’t an issue, following successful spawning of lake sturgeon, whitefish and walleye, said Claire Sanders, remedial action plan coordinator at the Essex Region Conservation Authority.

“It was successful almost immediately,” Sanders said. “It was an exciting project, with a huge number of partners, and was something that hadn’t been done before – at least on the Canadian side.”

Lake sturgeon require fast-flowing water and specific cobbled reef conditions for their eggs to stay oxygenated without being washed away. But moreover, fast-flowing water helps keep sediment from settling on the reef. Other native species that have been found spawning or using the reefs include white bass, suckers, smallmouth bass and trout.

Roseman said they’ve learned to study the hydrodynamics of the system to make sure the water won’t end up depositing silt or otherwise damage the reefs. There are ongoing studies to see if there is a way to affordably maintain and clean those buried Middle Channel and Fighting Island reefs on a regular basis – perhaps every two years – to give fish the opportunity to use them again, Roseman added. Scientists at the University of Michigan are researching if using high-pressure water jets to blast the sediment away would work, similar to technology used by ocean treasure hunters.

“There are a lot of reefs in the Great lakes and even beyond that could benefit from this,” Roseman said.

Money also needs to be taken into account on siting. The US Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) has provided funds in the past for reef restoration projects, but those grants are only available for the work if the reef has been constructed within the US side of the waterway, Boase said.

The learning process continues, too – work is underway on a new reef near Historic Fort Wayne in Detroit. A test reef had been built in 2015, and is now being expanded to include another four acres. Boase said it’s a high-flow, deep segment of the river relative to other areas – about 40-55 feet deep – and freighter traffic periodically passes by overhead. That work should begin in fall 2017.

Boase said there were concerns initially that the ships passing by could cause the Fort Wayne reef to dislodge, but the test reef has remained intact and in great shape. US Geological Survey has been the lead agency in determining how water flows over that section of the river and the impact it has on silt and rock movement over time, while the US Fish and Wildlife (USFWS) has focused on how to best attract target species like sturgeon. USFWS also is providing money through its coastal program to purchase additional rocks for the reef. Once construction is complete, two years of assessments on how well it’s working are planned.

Looking ahead, there aren’t any other Detroit River reefs in the works, but Boase said habitat restoration lessons from those built so far are providing guidance for shoreline restoration around Celeron Island and Stony Island on the lower Detroit River.

Roseman said the lessons from the Detroit River also are being used in other locations. GLRI funds are being directed toward restoration of the Maumee River to restore lake sturgeon habitat there, first by restoring wetlands at the lower Maumee, building up a rearing facility to raise sturgeon fry and potentially adding artificial reefs. Veterans of the Detroit River projects are working with the US Army Corps of Engineers to help inform restoration work in the St. Marys River, helping determine the best way to release water through the Compensating Works (large gates that help make sure there’s ample water for ships to pass through the river) to promote fish spawning in the Main Rapids. And scientists around the Niagara River and even in the Baltics region of Europe have been in touch to see what worked in the Huron-Erie corridor for their own restoration projects, Roseman said.

Above all, he added, consistently checking the situation in the water before and after restoring reefs has potentially been the most vital lesson of all. There are dozens of other artificial reefs in the Great Lakes basin that weren’t monitored, and researchers don’t know what shape they’re in or if fish are even using them.

“The key thing is having a willingness to make a risky experiment,” Roseman said. “We didn’t know if fish were going to use these piles of rock material. The only way to figure out if they did was to monitor it.”

The work was done through the partnership of more than a dozen organizations and agencies, Sanders said, known as the St. Clair-Detroit River System Initiative. These include the IJC along with USGS, USFWS, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, environmental agencies for Ontario, Michigan and Ohio, the Essex Region Conservation Authority, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, and Environment and Climate Change Canada. Other partners include the Walpole Island First Nation, The Nature Conservancy, Wayne State University and the University of Toledo.

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.

Great Lakes Advocates Urge Lawmakers to Protect Restoration Initiative

By Beth Wanamaker, Great Lakes Commission

great lakes restoration at work
The Great Lakes Commission’s website features an interactive map of GLRI projects, as well as state-by-state factsheets and an overall GLRI one-pager.

Members of the Great Lakes Commission and other leaders from the US and Canada took to Capitol Hill in March to attend the Semiannual Meeting of the Great Lakes Commission (GLC), as well as Great Lakes Day, an annual event that brings together regional organizations with federal policymakers to discuss Great Lakes restoration and protection.

US Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, delivered a keynote address that focused on protecting the lakes overall and the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI), which would be zeroed out in US President Donald Trump’s proposed Fiscal Year 2018 budget.

GLC members urged elected officials to protect the bipartisan GLRI, which serves as the most important line of defense against Asian carp getting into the Great Lakes, helps protect drinking water for 48 million people in the US and Canada, and accelerates the cleanup of Great Lakes toxic hotspots.

“This is an all-hands on deck moment for the Great Lakes,” Stabenow said. “The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has been critical to cleaning up our waterways, restoring fish and wildlife habitats, and fighting invasive species, like Asian carp.”

US Sen. Debbie Stabenow speaks at the Great Lakes Commission’s Semiannual Meeting, held March 15, 2017, in Washington, D.C. Credit: Great Lakes Commission

As part of Great Lakes Day events, the GLC and Northeast-Midwest Institute hosted a breakfast on Capitol Hill for lawmakers and advocates. Twelve congressional leaders from across the political spectrum and Great Lakes basin addressed an attendance of more than 100 stakeholders. Every lawmaker in attendance said the GLRI must be protected.

US Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minnesota, was among the speakers at the breakfast. “Our Great Lakes are not just a local and state issue,” Nolan said. “They benefit our entire nation.”

US Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Michigan, added, “This isn’t a partisan issue – it’s American to protect our Great Lakes and the waters that helped develop our economy.”

The GLRI is the result of the previous two US presidential administrations (Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama) who both recognized the need to protect the Great Lakes. President Bush called the lakes a “national treasure” and brought together a broad coalition of regional leaders to create the first restoration blueprint for the lakes. President Obama built on this blueprint by providing funding to implement the GLRI.

The GLRI has enjoyed broad bipartisan support in Congress since it began in 2010 and was formally authorized in 2016. It is coordinated by the US Environmental Protection Agency but is largely a collaboration among multiple federal agencies, the eight Great Lakes states, local communities, businesses and conservation groups.

Muskegon Lake toxic Area of Concern
In Michigan, the Muskegon Lake toxic Area of Concern has been mostly cleaned up and redeveloped thanks to the GLRI and coordinated efforts by state, federal and local agencies and citizens. This project is projected to increase property values by nearly $12 million, contribute $600,000 in new tax revenues annually, and attract 65,000 new visitors to the lake generating more than $1 million in new recreational spending. Credit: Great Lakes Commission

While Canada doesn’t receive GLRI funding, they are a strong partner in restoring and protecting the Great Lakes. Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna delivered remarks at a Great Lakes Day event in D.C. after meeting with new US EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt earlier in the day. In addition, the environment ministers from Ontario and Quebec recently teamed up to send a strong letter to US House appropriators on the importance of GLRI funding. “Since its inception in 2010, the GLRI has proved to be an indispensable engine for environmental and economic revitalization throughout the region,” they wrote.

While Trump’s proposed budget zeroes out Great Lakes restoration, Congress has final authority. In a March 30 letter, 23 Republicans and 40 Democrats requested that the GLRI be fully funded.

For more updates on the GLRI and Great Lakes restoration funding, follow the Great Lakes Commission on Twitter and Facebook.

Beth Wanamaker manages communications for the Great Lakes Commission, which works on behalf of the Great Lakes states and provinces to protect and enhance the region’s economic prosperity and environmental health. To learn more about the GLC visit www.glc.org.

Contribute your Thoughts, Concerns and Ideas Online and at March Great Lakes Public Meetings

It’s Your Time to Speak Up for the Great Lakes

By Sally Cole-Misch, IJC

In previous editions of this newsletter, we’ve told you about reports released by Canada, the United States and the IJC on progress to restore the vitality of the Great Lakes. Both reports are required every three years by the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, which provides goals to guide the two countries’ work. Just as important are your views on how the Great Lakes are faring. We’re offering a variety of ways and places to contribute your thoughts over the next few months, which will be included in the IJC’s final report. Now’s your chance to influence what actions will be taken for the Great Lakes in the next three-year or triennial cycle. Read on for ways to contribute your voice to the conversation.

six cities health great lakes tap meetings
Join us in one of six cities to provide your insights on the health of the Great Lakes: Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario; Detroit, Michigan; the Lake Erie Center in Oregon, Ohio (top row); Sarnia, Ontario; Buffalo, New York; and St. Catharines, Ontario. Credits: City of Sault Ste. Marie, IJC, University of Toledo, City of Sarnia, Jake Haggmark, City of St. Catharines.

Read and Comment

Your first option is to review the reports – the Progress Report of the Parties and the IJC’s draft Triennial Assessment of Progress (TAP) report – and provide written comments. The TAP report includes several questions for your consideration that were included to help in writing the final report and its recommendations. We welcome perceptions of the lakes from your unique vantage point, locally and as a Great Lakes citizen. All written comments can be submitted by April 15 at Participate IJC, by email to ParticipateIJC@ottawa.ijc.org, or through the mail to IJC, 234 Laurier Ave. West, 22nd Floor, Ottawa, ON K1P 6K6.

Attend an IJC Great Lakes Public Meeting

The IJC’s TAP report is in draft form to gather public input before its findings are finalized into recommendations. We met with citizens in Toronto and Milwaukee last fall after the governments released their progress report, and their comments are included in this draft TAP report. Now we’re coming to six Great Lakes communities throughout the month of March to get your reaction to both reports and your unique perceptions of the Great Lakes. Each meeting will focus initially on the Agreement topics that are most relevant to that location, but any comments about the Great Lakes are welcome at each meeting. Local experts addressing key issues will provide brief presentations, and then the floor and conversations will be yours.

Here’s the lineup:

Thursday, March 2: Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and Michigan Public Meeting
Delta Hotels by Marriott, 208 St. Mary’s River Drive, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario
6 p.m. public meeting
Key topics: St. Mary’s River Area of Concern, Lake Superior lakewide management, habitat

Tuesday, March 21: Detroit, Michigan, and Windsor, Ontario, Roundtable and Public Meeting
Michigan Department of Natural Resources Adventure Center, 1801 Atwater, Detroit, Michigan
1-4 p.m. roundtable with local experts on key issues (the public is welcome to attend and listen to the conversation), 6 p.m. public meeting
Key topics: Areas of Concern, water quality and human health, green infrastructure, environmental justice, recreational use

Wednesday, March 22: Sarnia, Ontario, and Port Huron, Michigan, Public Roundtable
Lochiel Kiwanis Community Centre, 180 North College Ave., Sarnia, Ontario
1:30-4:30 p.m. public roundtable
Key topics: St. Clair River Area of Concern, chemicals of mutual concern and human health, harmful algal blooms and Great Lakes nutrient reductions

Thursday, March 23: Toledo, Ohio, Public Meeting
University of Toledo Lake Erie Center, 6200 Bay Shore Road, Oregon, Ohio
6 p.m. public meeting
Key topics: Harmful algal blooms, Lake Erie nutrient reduction, agriculture, fisheries

Tuesday, March 28: Buffalo, New York, Roundtable and Public Meeting
WNED-WBFO Studio, 140 Lower Terrace, Buffalo, New York
1:30-4:30 p.m. roundtable with local experts on key issues (the public is welcome to attend and listen to the conversation), 6 p.m. public meeting
Key topics: Areas of Concern, chemicals of mutual concern, recreational use, and wetlands and habitat

Wednesday, March 29:  St. Catharines, Ontario, and Niagara Falls Public Roundtable
Alumni Hall, St. Catharines Rowing Club, Henley Island, end of Henley Island Drive, St. Catharines, Ontario
1:30-4:30 p.m. public roundtable
Key topics: Sustainable agriculture, harmful algal blooms, Great Lakes nutrient reduction, chemicals of mutual concern and human health, and Areas of Concern.

Register to attend one or more of these sessions today to receive updated information, and look for further details in the March issue of Great Lakes Connection as well as on the IJC’s website and its social media outlets.

Be Part of the Conversation through Social Media

 You may already follow the IJC on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. If not, we invite you to join the conversation to receive meeting updates and reports as well as links to videos and comments from each session on Participate IJC. We welcome your input, retweets, shares and likes and will repost comments about progress to restore and protect the Great Lakes. All written comments should be provided on ParticipateIJC to ensure that they are part of the official record in the final TAP report.

Join the conversation and provide us with your perspectives of how the Great Lakes are faring. Now’s the time to speak out for the lakes we love.

It’s Your Turn: Tell Us What You Think About IJC’s TAP Report and Progress to Restore the Great Lakes

By Sally Cole-Misch, IJC

The Canadian and US governments presented their progress report last fall on efforts to restore the Great Lakes by meeting the goals of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. The IJC has now released its initial assessment of that progress in a draft Triennial Assessment of Progress report. The TAP report was released in draft form so we can hear from you before it becomes a final report to both countries.

shores lake superior tap
The shores of Lake Superior. Credit: Dean Pennala – Fotolia

“Now that the IJC has released its draft assessment of progress report, we’re eager to hear from Great Lakes residents,” US Commissioner Rich Moy said at the time of the report’s release.

There are several ways you can contribute to the IJC’s assessment of progress to restore and protect the Great Lakes. You can tell us what you think of the draft report’s findings and respond to its questions — and anything else that’s on your mind about the lakes — via email to ParticipateIJC@ottawa.ijc.org and online at ParticipateIJC through April 15, 2017.

You’re also invited to attend a public outreach meeting that the IJC will host in six communities in March. In addition to hearing your thoughts and comments, local experts will present the latest information on specific issues in each location – including the successes and challenges still to be faced – to ensure a broad conversation about the lakes.

“We strongly encourage everyone to provide their input or participate in an upcoming public meeting,” said IJC Canadian Chair Gordon Walker. “Public input is essential to Agreement success.”

Public meeting dates and locations include:

  • Thursday, March 2: Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario
  • Tuesday, March 21: Detroit, Michigan
  • Wednesday, March 22: Sarnia, Ontario
  • Thursday, March 23: Toledo, Ohio
  • Tuesday, March 28: Buffalo, New York
  • Wednesday, March 29: St. Catharines, Ontario.

Details for each meeting will be provided in early February at Participate IJC, on the IJC website, in next month’s issue of Great Lakes Connection, and on our Facebook and Twitter pages.

Be part of the conversation by telling us how you value the Great Lakes ecologically, culturally, economically and personally, and about the commitment you and your community share to restore and protect these precious waters.

What do you think about Canada and the United States’ progress to accomplish the Agreement’s goals and objectives, and about the IJC’s draft assessment of that progress? Your voice is essential to ensure that both countries continue to make progress. The floor is yours.

Sally Cole-Misch is the public affairs officer at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario.

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on Jan. 30, 2017, to reflect a date change to the Toledo meeting.

Citizens to Speak Out on Great Lakes Restoration and Protection in October

By Lauren Stokes, IJC

great lakes public forum binational toronto ontario canada
Credit: Binational.net

Mark your calendars for Oct. 4-6 as the first of several dates to learn how the Great Lakes are faring and provide your own thoughts. That’s when the governments of Canada and the United States will hold the Great Lakes Public Forum at the Allstream Centre in Toronto, Ontario.

Officials will present the latest findings on primary issues the two countries committed to acting on in the 2012 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, including climate change, habitats and species, and chemicals of mutual concern. A total of 16 presentations are slated for Tuesday and Wednesday, Oct. 4-5. The progress report – also known as the Parties’ Report on Progress or PROP – will be released in September and provide the basis for the conference presentations. On Thursday, Oct. 6, various presenters will celebrate the diversity of the Great Lakes.

The IJC will contribute to the forum by holding two public meetings on Wednesday, Oct. 5. Those present at the Allstream Centre can tell us what they think about PROP and the governments’ actions from 4:30-6 p.m. Then we’ll move to downtown Toronto for a meeting from 7-9 p.m. to obtain more public comments from the broader community.

Allstream Centre in Toronto, Ontario
Allstream Centre in Toronto, Ontario. Credit: IJC files

Sharing your views on government progress to restore and protect the Great Lakes is vital to the IJC as we develop our own assessment of progress and recommend actions that Canada and the US should take to restore and protect the Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem.

The forum is open to the public and free to attend, and will be streamed live with multiple opportunities to provide online comments throughout the three days. Registration is available via binational.net.

Shortly after the Toronto public forum, the IJC will hold a public meeting on Oct. 18 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to allow residents on the western side of the basin to share their views. Final details for all meetings will be included in the September issue of the Great Lakes Connection newsletter.

Lauren Stokes is an intern at the IJC’s Great Lakes Regional Office in Windsor, Ontario, and a student in the political science master’s program at University of Windsor.




Sturgeon Spawning Grounds Restoration Shows Promising Results

By Kevin Bunch, IJC

Lake sturgeon were once abundant in the Great Lakes basin before overfishing and habitat destruction in the late 1800s through the early 1900s decimated their numbers. Since then, a lack of suitable spawning locations for the sturgeon to lay eggs has been a major drag on recovery efforts.

lake sturgeon swims natural reef spawn
A lake sturgeon swims through a natural reef on its way to spawn. Credit: Adam Lintz

So about 15 years ago, a group of interested researchers and organizations made the decision to build their own spawning rocky reefs mimicking the lost natural sites for the fish. Those plans to construct spawning grounds in the Detroit and St. Clair Rivers years ago are showing promising results now, University of Michigan Water Center Director Jennifer Read said.

The three initial spawning reefs, constructed off Belle Isle in 2004, were relatively small, 50-by-80 feet or about 37 square meters. The reefs were made with a variety of substrates and shapes to see which ones sturgeon used the most. The fish seek out loose rock with clean-flowing water located deep under the surface to lay eggs. While the rivers used to be filled with suitable spawning habitat, much of it was destroyed by dredging and construction of the shipping channel, Read said. Follow-up investigations found that sturgeon and other fish species, like whitefish, walleye and a variety of suckers, were at the reefs, with other species confirmed to be spawning.

test reef construction fort wayne detroit
A test reef under construction near Historic Fort Wayne park in southwest Detroit. Credit: James Conway

Rich Drouin, lead management biologist with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry’s Lake Erie division, said his agency found sturgeon weren’t picky about the type of substrate, prompting future reefs to be built with relatively cheap fractured limestone.

Additional reefs were constructed in other locations within the Detroit and St. Clair Rivers with ample water flow. Reefs have been built near Fighting Island and Grassy Island in the Detroit River, and by Pointe Aux Chenes, Harts Light and the Middle Channel at the St. Clair headwaters. Read said there are now eight in total. A new one near Belle Isle is in the works that would be about five acres or 2 hectares.

“We’ve gone from a postage stamp to a fairly nice size,” Read said. “The impact of making navigable (waterways) and upland uses reduced good spawning habitat by 90 percent. There may have been 500 acres lost, so this may be a small percentage of what was lost, but it has a large impact on the fish.” With the eight reefs built, and a ninth at Belle Isle, the restored reefs will amount to around 20 acres or 8 hectares.

See also – Fins Up: Detroit River Reef Project to Benefit Endangered Lake Sturgeon

So far invasive species haven’t been a major problem at the man-made reefs, said Lynn Vaccaro, coastal ecosystem research specialist at the University of Michigan Water Center. The loose rock chosen is too large for parasitic sea lamprey tastes and too small for egg-eating round gobies to settle in any large numbers. While some invasive mussels have attached themselves to the rocks, they have not yet deterred the fish from using the sites to spawn.

Read said the new Belle Isle reef could cost more than $1 million from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative just for the construction, including binational consultation, document preparation and oversight, but not pre- and post-construction assessments. Those assessments are valuable for narrowing down the criteria to find the right location for construction and seeing how the fish respond afterwards. One such assessment found that the Middle Channel site was getting silt on it, which affects sturgeon spawning.

Drouin said since it takes up to 25 years for sturgeon to grow into adults, it could take that long to determine if their population is growing based on the habitat restoration or if the fish are simply moving their spawning efforts to the reefs from elsewhere. Other species will need years of study as well, but if they are growing that could be important to fishery management.

Drouin said sturgeon are known to eat invasive zebra and quagga mussels, though at their current numbers they don’t eat enough to make much of a dent in their spread across the basin.

While urban development and modern shipping needs limits how much habitat can be restored in the river systems, Read noted every little bit helps in the effort to bring the Great Lakes’ largest residents back from the brink.

sturgeon artificial reef middle channel st clair river usgs
A sturgeon swims through an artificially constructed reef in the middle channel of the St. Clair River. Credit: USGS

Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s U.S. Section office in Washington, D.C.