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Detroit — Families got hands-on Saturday learning about fish, wildlife, environmental challenges the Detroit River faces and what is being done to restore habitats.

Shiver on the River, held annually on the first Saturday in February, educated people on the importance of the river and the need for stewardship.

Hundreds of people attended the event hosted by Friends of the Detroit River at the Belle Isle Casino, where environmental groups including the Michigan Department of Natural Resources had educational activities to participate in.

"I remember coming to Belle Isle as a kid and it's great to see people still coming and how much it has changed," said Mari Frost, 62, who attended the event with her son and 4-year-old grandson. "He loves this kind of stuff and we're supporters of Friends of the Detroit River so it's all great."

Kids had characters made of them as they learned about the fish that swim in the Detroit River, held snakes and touched the skins of animals they may never encounter up close.

During Detroit's early years, the river became a vital transportation corridor, but as the region developed, residents filled the wetlands, dug shipping channels, and built up the shorelines. Pollution flowed into the river during the Industrial Revolution, and the 1987 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement designated the Detroit River as one of 43 areas of concern or contaminated sites.

Robert Burns, spokesman for the Friends of the Detroit River, said they launched 14 projects six years ago that are funded federally by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

"The hope is to restore water quality, reduce industrial discharge, and replenish the loss of fish and wildlife habitats," he said. "This will help shoreline restoration, too, and can raise property values and a city's tax base by reducing drinking water costs and create new places to visit."

More than $25 million has been invested into already completed or projects under construction including new bridges, recreational sites, digging channels to give fish safe passage when water levels are low.

From 2010 to 2013, projects on Belle Isle included restoring the south fishing pier by using shoals (rocky underwater ridges) running parallel with the pier to dissipate waves from passing freighters. It slows the river current and allows the fish nursery to flourish. Blue Heron Lagoon was also opened to the river at Belle Isle's eastern point. The two projects cost $2 million.

Since September 2018, Michigan's DNR has been assessing Belle Isle's 200-acre flatwoods forest and developing engineering plans to address current threats including invasive plants, man-made changes to the waterways, invasive emerald ash borer beetle, and a fungal disease called oak wilt.

An ongoing project since August 2014 and the most expensive at $5 million, is restoring Lake Okonoka to be more accessible to spawning fish by linking it to Blue Heron Lagoon on one end and the Detroit River on the other, allowing fish to pass between the bodies of water and "not die during the summer heat," Burns said.

The project is expected to be completed in December.

The Detroit Audubon had an activity called "Fill the Bill" where kids use different tools to mimic a bird's beak and use it to crack open nuts and pick gummy worms. Then, match it to the right bird. 

"Kids always ask, where are the birds? this time of year," said Sarah Halson, program coordinator of the Detroit Audubon. "We focus on connecting people with the birds and the environments we share. It's great to have families come out and get interested in nature and learn how they can get involved."

Twitter: @SarahRahal_

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