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Traverse City — Walleye, yellow perch, suckers and smallmouth bass could again swim the winding Boardman River beyond downtown Traverse City to forage for food or spawn in submerged vegetation, as they did more than a century ago.

Native fish species of the Great Lakes have been blocked from moving up and down the Boardman River because of a series of dams constructed in the late-19th century for the booming logging industry and then to power the growing city. 

That’s about to change.

The last-standing of four dams is poised to be replaced with a state-of-the-art fish passage and research facility — called FishPass. The goal of the new facility, the first of its kind, is to study the latest fish-sorting technologies and techniques to ultimately allow native species to move up and down the river and block invasive species, such as sea lamprey.

Think of it as an E-ZPass for fish, the right kind of fish.

The $18 million-to-$20 million project, expected to begin construction in October, culminates a decades-long effort to restore the Boardman River, a 36-mile-long waterway that originates near Kalkaska and empties into the west arm of Grand Traverse Bay. Other dams have already been removed, helping restore 160 miles of native cold-water fisheries habitat and 250 acres of wetlands.

“FishPass is the capstone of the entire Boardman River Ecological Restoration Project,” said Frank Dituri, director of Public Services for Traverse City, one of the partners in the fish-sorting project. “It connects the river back to Grand Traverse Bay and the Great Lakes. It’s the largest river restoration project in Michigan’s history.”

At the site of the Union Street dam, the Boardman River will be reconfigured. On the south side, an improved fishpassager barrier — an arched labyrinth weir — will be constructed, along with a nature-like channel and meant to safely maintain all river flow. On the north side, a 400-foot-long concrete flume with gates at either end will be built to develop fish-sorting methods.

FishPass could be a model for the Great Lakes and other waterways around the globe, officials say.

“This project has a broad impact,” said Daniel P. Zielinski, principal engineer/scientist with the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, lead partner for FishPass. 

“If you can even increase the passage of native fish by 10%, that’s a large amount of fish to reconnect with native spawning habitat. As long as we can keep out sea lamprey, this could have a lot of potential benefits for the Great Lakes.”

The project also will improve recreation access at the site, which is about a mile from the river’s mouth at Lake Michigan and a few blocks south of the Front Street shopping corridor. Plans call for a pedestrian bridge, an interpretive overlook, an amphitheater (for educational and entertainment purposes), and other amenities, including kayak and canoe portages.

“The site will look like a river running through a park,” Dituri said.

Other project partners include the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Most of the money for the project is coming from Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding.

'A real solution'

Traverse City was one of 12 sites in the Great Lakes region considered for FishPass.

A team of scientists, fish behavior and ecology experts, engineers and others from U.S. organizations and agencies visited each location, and from a set of criteria, including native fish runs, community involvement, ranked the Boardman River at the top for the project, largely because of the community had been so engaged in restoring the river and the Union Street dam has been a much-needed barrier to protect the watershed from infestation.

“The view was that the FishPass project was the best way to deal with the problems of the Union Street dam,” Zielinski said. “It was seen as a real solution to those problems.”

Originally built in 1867, the Union Street dam could not simply be removed. Although the structure is blocking native fish, it has also largely prevented sea lamprey from passing farther upstream.

Research at FishPass is expected to begin in 2022 and will continue over a 10-year period. Sorting technologies will be tested individually and in combination with one another. They include using eel traps, lighting, ultrasounds, shape recognition and altering the speed of water flow.

Some studies, Zielinski said, might require the passage of a small number of native species to assess their impact on the upstream watershed. They’re not expected to occur during the first few years of research and will be planned in coordination with project partners. Released fish will be tagged and closely monitored.

Following the 10-year period, the state DNR will work with the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, angler groups and the public to determine which fish will be allowed upstream. Likely species could include white and longnose suckers, walleye, lake sturgeon, lake trout, smallmouth bass and northern pike.

“We want to block the sea lamprey,” said Zielinski, noting they need river access to spawn and are harmful to native species. “A single sea lamprey can do quite a bit of damage in the Great Lakes. We want to prevent them from spawning … this is the holy grail of invasive species management.”

The sea lamprey, native to the Atlantic Ocean, spread throughout the Great Lakes by the late 1930s. Resembling eels, sea lamprey attach to fish with their suction-cup mouths and feed on their blood, usually killing their prey, according to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission. They prey on most species of large Great Lakes fish, including lake trout, brown trout, walleye and lake whitefish.

There is global interest in the research that will occur at FishPass. Lessons learned in Traverse City could be applied elsewhere. Zielinski noted there were international scientists involved in the development of design criteria and ongoing research, and other waterways around the world are dealing with invasive species as well.

“The idea of selectively letting fish pass — there is a need for this around the world,” Zielinski said.

Challenges

Upstream of the Union Street dam the primary fish species are brook trout and brown trout. The river draws a lot of local anglers and from elsewhere in Michigan and is considered one of the state’s premier cold-water trout streams.

“There is a strong brook trout fishery and that’s what is unique about the Boardman,” said Bryan Burroughs, executive director of Trout Unlimited in Michigan. 

Burroughs said that although Trout Unlimited supports the goals of the FishPass project, he had reservations about whether sorting technology could be 100% effective. Realistic scenarios are likely to mean some percentage of non-native species passing through in the process.

“Inherently, there are challenges with this kind of project,” said Burroughs, who has a doctorate in fisheries from Michigan State University. “If they’re successful, then they’ll have accomplished something nobody has been able to figure out. The reason we don’t have (non-manual fish-sorting technologies) now is that nobody has been able to do that.”

Some sports fishing groups have raised concerns about the possibility of allowing salmon and steelhead through FishPass. Steelhead, some fear, could harm the brook trout population and draw too many big fish anglers.

“Will a certain percentage of native species be able to pass through, but, at the same time, some undesirable species escape through as well?” asked Gus Newbury, president of the Brook Trout Coalition, whose mission is to protect the state fish and its habitat. “That would not be a good end result in our opinion.”

The coalition supports allowing native species of the upper Great Lakes “to pass as they once did, before the dams,” he said. “We have reservations about the decision making behind which fish will pass, how FishPass will work and how reliable it will be.”

Wes Newberry, president of the Grand Traverse Area Sports Fishing Association, said his organization is aware of concerns about allowing non-native species upstream, but cautioned the DNR is not going to let 10,000 steelhead pass through and wreak havoc on the habitat and brook trout population.

“They’re not out for crushing an ecosystem,” said Newberry, adding his organization would like to “see other species introduced (in the Boardman) for anglers in the area to fish.”

'Right thing to do'

With FishPass helping to restore the movement of native fish species, the Boardman River will nearly return to its original state, the culmination of long-time conservation efforts supported by the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.

“The tribe recognizes river restoration as an expression of the truest of conservation ethics,” said Brett Fessell, a river ecologist for the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. The tribe, he said, helped secure millions of dollars in funding for the river restoration project.

The tribe has been concerned about the proliferation of sea lamprey because they impact Great Lakes fisheries, which Native Americans have long depended on for subsistence and livelihood.

“We’ve always been in support of keeping them out of the watershed. Simply put, we just look at this project as the right thing to do,” Fessell said. “It will help bring back the river to its natural state, its natural rhythm.”

Long before European settlement, local tribes followed trails to the Boardman watershed to fish, hunt and camp in the summer. This time of year, they set up sugar camps to tap maple syrup from the woods.

Hank Bailey, an elder in the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, found it depressing to watch the watershed’s deterioration over the years. He occasionally fished ponds in the watershed, but “to be honest, there was little to catch,” he said.

Now, he’s encouraged by the impact restoration efforts have had on the watershed and how FishPass will eventually return native fish species to the river and its tributaries.

“I’m quite happy,” he said. “I’ve seen how the environment has improved greatly since they took down the dams out of there. The water is healthier than it was. I’ve seen how trees are growing back.

"There is encouragement that we can reverse some of the damage. It shows what can be done when different organizations work together to overcome some of the bad things that have happened.”

Greg Tasker is a Michigan-based freelance writer. Reach him at gregetasker@gmail.com.

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