A $2-million habitat restoration project on Belle Isle is expected to further the comeback story of fish on the Detroit River and make Detroit?s island park a more desirable destination for anglers.
Keith Flournoy, Belle Isle park manager for the city, called the improvements ?wonderful.?
?Just the aesthetics of it look great,? he said. ?And what it does for habitat, for the fish to thrive in this area; the opportunities for fishermen to have a better fishing experience both in the Detroit River and on Belle Isle … I think it?s money well-spent.?
Belle Isle was on display last weekend for the annual Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix and will take center stage again next weekend with the two-day Orion Music + More festival featuring metal giant Metallica. But the habitat enhancements are occurring on the little-trafficked east side of the island, usually left to birds, frogs, turtles and snakes.
A $1.5-million portion of the project is transforming the Blue Heron Lagoon, a 41-acre wetland on the island?s east end that for decades has featured a small, pump-fed lake closed to the river. The lagoon is now open to allow the river to flow through. A new pedestrian bridge spans the water opening.
The lagoon now better provides areas where baby fish, known as fry, can hide and develop during a crucial period when they are most vulnerable to predators, said David Howell, chairman of Friends of the Detroit River, a nonprofit that helped lead efforts on the Belle Isle projects. Dredging over the years to improve freighter shipping on the river destroyed many of the gravelly bottom areas fish like for spawning, he noted.
?If they did spawn, the eggs or little fish would just get washed away. There was no safe harbor,? Howell said. ?This is a place for fry to go and grow and return to the river.?
Some deep holes were excavated in the lagoon to vary water depths, said the Friends? Sam Lovall, project manager on the Belle Isle habitat restoration.
?It?s really been an attraction to fish,? he said.
A peninsula constructed in the lagoon is currently being planted with a variety of submerged and emerged plants, further improving habitat.
?The whole point is diversity in the biosystem ? more fish, more birds, the snakes, the turtles,? Lovall said. ?All of them living together is what makes a healthy community of wildlife.?
Southwest of the Blue Heron Lagoon, at the South Fishing Pier, a series of breakwaters now slows the current between the pier and land, protecting small and large fish alike from both the river flows and large freighters? wakes, Lovall said. More plantings and water depth variances further enhance the fish habitat.
?It?s a nice fishing pier, but fishermen didn?t typically have a lot of luck fishing there because it?s right in the middle of the current,? Howell said. ?There?s no place for the fish to gather or sort of rest. The fish just get pushed on down the river. The South Fishing Pier created some shelter and rest spots.?
The project works in concert with spawning reefs constructed in the river near Belle Isle in recent years, which has led to a comeback in fish species including the threatened lake sturgeon, Michigan?s oldest and largest fish, as well as whitefish, Howell said.
The project is funded through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a federal grant program designed to address areas of concern in the Great Lakes region. That includes the Detroit River, with its long history of industrial pollution and aquatic habitat loss.
?About 97% of coastal wetlands on the Detroit River are gone; the original, coastal wetlands,? Howell said.
?Efforts like these and others up and down the river are designed to protect the remaining 3% and add to it.?