Habitat restoration improves St. Marys River fish and wildlife populations

Oct. 7, 2019
EGLE Media Office, EGLE-Assist@Michigan.gov, 517-284-9278
John Riley, Area of Concern Coordinator, RileyJ2@Michigan.gov, 517-284-5045

Great Lakes fish spawning areas are increasing in the Upper Peninsula, thanks to a project that recently reestablished more than 50 acres of fast-moving rapids habitat in the St. Marys River. Salmon, trout, walleye, pike and perch are just some of the species benefiting from the restoration of the Little Rapids, just downstream from the Soo Locks.

The federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative provided funding to replace a causeway in the St. Marys River, near Sault Ste. Marie, with an open span bridge to create free flowing conditions through the Little Rapids area. The former causeway connected Sugar Island and Island Number One, effectively acting as a dam and severely reducing river flow through the area. The causeway was originally constructed with two 6-foot culverts, but the reduction in flow severely degraded in‑stream habitat conditions to the point that the Little Rapids could not support the spawning needs of many valued fish species. The St. Marys River connects Lake Superior with Lake Huron and forms the international border between the Upper Peninsula and Canada.

The project was a collaborative effort between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Great Lakes Commission; Chippewa County Road Commission; Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE); Michigan Department of Natural Resources; Lake Superior State University; and several others.

The St. Marys River was listed as a Great Lakes Area of Concern (AOC) in 1985 by the International Joint Commission, due to a legacy of pollution and habitat loss caused primarily by industrial activities and riparian development. High quality rapids habitat in the system is rare, but has been improved significantly by the installation of the new bridge over the Little Rapids.

Some economically important fish species require swift-moving water through rocky bottom habitat for successful spawning, incubating, hatching and survival of the next generation. The project was completed in fall 2016. Monitoring efforts in 2017 and 2018 indicate that game fish and other species began to take full advantage of the newly recreated habitat areas less than a year following completion of the project.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved the removal of the Loss of Fish and Wildlife Habitat and Degradation of Fish and Wildlife Populations Beneficial Use Impairments (BUI) as a result of the Little Rapids project. Tracking BUIs is the primary way the AOC Program measures progress in these historically degraded sites around the Great Lakes Basin.

To learn more about restoration efforts in Michigan's Great Lakes AOCs, go to EPA.gov/Great-Lakes-AOCs.

To stay up to date on other EGLE news, follow us at Michigan.gov/MIEnvironment.

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