Traverse City project would help native fish and block invasive species

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TRAVERSE CITY – A failing dam on a river that winds through Traverse City could be replaced with an innovative ‘FishPass’ that would allow native fish species to move upstream and downstream while preventing harmful invasive species like sea lampreys .

The FishPass proposal is the culmination of 20 years of effort to restore the Boardman-Ottaway River which flows into the West Arm of Grand Traverse Bay on Lake Michigan. But the project is facing a legal challenge that has made its way to the state Court of Appeals.

The 10-year research project would examine a variety of methods for sorting fish – using environmental stimulation like bubbles, sound, light and pheromones to drive them through the structure. The fish would then be sorted under the dam and transported upstream in a kind of elevator or pump known as an Archimedes’ screw, said Dan Zielinski, principal engineer and scientist at the Great Lakes Fishery Commission and for Fish Pass.

Fish recognition technology

Another method would be to sort fish by detecting density, size, shape, color and migratory patterns. To solve the problem of different fish with similar characteristics, and fish that are above or below average size and weight, FishPass provides image recognition technology, similar to facial recognition used to unlock smartphones. It has been used in fish studies before, but always in a laboratory where fish behavior may differ from nature. FishPass would be the first to study this method in a natural environment.

“We’re not focusing on developing new tools, but it’s really about using the tools that have been developed over the last 50 to 100 years and being able to integrate multiple tools into different configurations. FishPass really presents the first time it could have been done,” Zielinski said.

The nearly $20 million project would be funded largely by federal and state grants.

The Boardman-Ottaway River flows over 28 miles from near Kalkaska to Grand Traverse Bay. The river once had four dams, used first for the lumber industry that boomed in Michigan in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and then for hydroelectricity generation. Three of the four dams have since been removed, as part of an effort to restore more natural flows to the river. The Union Street Dam in downtown Traverse City is the last remaining dam and the century-old earth barrier is deteriorating.

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The Union Street Dam, in the foreground, the last remaining dam on the Boardman River is seen in Traverse City, December 4, 2020.

Help good fish while keeping invaders out

But the degrading structure cannot simply be removed. The Union Street Dam – the furthest downstream and closest to Lake Michigan of the four historic dams – creates near Boardman Lake and is the last barrier between the river system and invasive species like sea lamprey that could threaten the ecological health of the river, prized for its trout fishing.

Enter FishPass, a collaborative effort between Traverse City and federal, state and tribal agencies. This would create a new facility about a mile upstream from the Union Street Dam so that the failing structure could be removed. He would also establish a center for education and research, where a variety of methods would be tested and implemented to allow the movement of desired species on the river while keeping invaders out.

“This is simply the most innovative and exciting project I think I’ve seen our commission participate in,” said Marc Gaden, Deputy Executive Secretary of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission.

“It’s partly because it’s really a paradigm shift in terms of fishing. But the other part is that it’s the cornerstone of the Boardman-Ottaway River restoration that’s been going on for a long time.

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Kayakers on the Boardman River in downtown Traverse City on May 22, 2020.

Legal disputes get in the way

An important part of the FishPass project was the recreational and aesthetic appeal of the campus. The commission incorporated features sought by residents into the design, such as natural aesthetics, green spaces, rain gardens, and access for fishing and kayaking. They also didn’t include picnic tables or grills in the design, as requested by community members.

Getting the community on board was essential for the project, since public support determined whether it would be approved, Gaden said.

“We had a kind of dual need,” he said. “That dam needed to be replaced because it’s leaking, it’s old and dangerous, frankly. And we needed a place to do technology and engineering research in a very controlled setting.

Traverse City resident Rick Buckhalter filed a lawsuit against the city and the Traverse City Commission last year, claiming the FishPass project was going to impact a public park and should therefore be put to a vote city-wide. Grand Traverse County Thirteenth Circuit Court Judge Thomas Power agreed. The city, with support from Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, then appealed the decision to the Michigan Court of Appeals, with a hearing in Petoskey on October 4. A decision from the Court of Appeal is pending.

Traverse City attorney Lauren Triboe-Laucht said the city charter gives the commission the power to approve the project. She added that the property where the FishPass facilities will be built is not a dedicated park and the city will retain ownership.

Traverse City isn’t the only place with an old, failing dam and a need to move some species of fish up and down stream while keeping others out.

“The impact of invasive species and barriers is a global concern,” Zielinski said. “In our conversations with international partners and colleagues, they are all looking at this project to see what solutions are going to be generated and are also very excited about the project.”

Detroit Free Press reporter Keith Matheny contributed. Contact reporter Tess Ware at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter, @Tess_Petoskey.

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