Want to catch fish on Lake St. Clair? Head to Canada, study says

If you want to catch a fish in Lake St. Clair, your odds are better in Canadian waters, according to a new study of catch rates on the U.S. and Canadian sides of the lake. 

The first-ever binational Lake St. Clair-wide small fish survey was conducted in cooperation with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Ontario Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources, and Forestry, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in July.

The study’s goal was to determine whether catch rates on the U.S. side of the lake were comparable with the Canadian side. 

They weren’t. 

“What we found was that the catch rates in Canadian waters were higher than what they are on the U.S. side. And we attribute that to differences in habitat,” says Todd Wills, the Lake Huron-Lake Erie Area Research Manager for the DNR at Lake St. Clair Fisheries Research Station. 

According to Wills, more intense development along the lake’s Michigan shoreline is the reason for lower catch rates of sturgeon and small-mouthed bass in U.S. waters compared with Canadian. The study found catch rates were ten times higher in Canadian waters, where natural, undisturbed shorelines are much more common than in U.S. waters, where hardened seawalls prevail.

“That translates to different habitats that are available for the fish,” Wills said. “And the fish really prefer those natural shoreline habitats that they have on the Canadian side.” 

Armoring is the practice of using physical structures to protect shorelines from coastal erosion—the loss of shoreline sediment. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it’s common in coastal communities; approximately 350,000 structures sit within 500 feet of the nation’s shorelines. 

Examples of such structures are seawalls, breakwaters, and rip rap. The most common in Michigan are seawalls, often made of boulders, which can eliminate habitat for marine organisms and beachfront for the public by restricting the natural movement of sediments. According to Wills, fish have more of what they need to live in Canada.

“Think of it as a happy place for a fish. It’s a natural habitat. It’s different than the reinforced armored shorelines that we have here on the U.S side,” Wills said.

But when people build homes along the lake, they don’t want their shorelines to disappear. “They want to be able to dock a boat next to it or put a boat lift in or a dock out from it.” 

It helps reinforce the shoreline, but only for a while. “It pains me. People build a revetment, it does not hold up, and they will build a bigger revetment, and an even bigger revetment until the cost of the revetment exceeds the value of the property, Guy Meadows, director of the Marine Engineering Laboratory at Michigan Technological University’s Great Lakes Research Center told Bridge Michigan in 2020. 

“And that not only affects the habitat that the fish like, but it also affects the ability of other organisms like reptiles like turtles, who no longer transit from the water to the land because they’ve lost that interface,” Wills said. “They can’t climb a steel seawall. So, has huge negative effects for aquatic habitat.” 

For Wills, his eye is on the fish. There is some good news, however.  Sportfishing populations like walleye and yellow perch are thriving—and smallmouth bass fishing in Lake St. Clair is some of the best in the world. 

But, the study shows nearshore fishing on the Michigan side of Lake St. Clair is hampered by shoreline development.

Wills said the U.S. and Canada will continue to collaborate and perform joint surveys that give a complete picture of the health of the lakes that both nations share. 

Meanwhile, Wills said the DNR is engaged in sharing this information with citizens and providing data to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, the regulatory agency that oversees shoreline development permits. 

“And then reaching out to the regulatory agencies and the public to educate them about the importance of those types of habitats. And where possible, looking for things like grant dollars to help restore habitat,” Wills said.

The issue has urgency because Michigan is a state where “there is a direct link between natural resources and the economy,” Wills said. “And I think that’s an important thing to focus on. Those resources do so much for us.”

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