An annual Sturgeon Festival in Michigan’s St. Clair County celebrates the fish’s resurgence while teaching people about the importance of clean water.
More lake sturgeon swim in the waters touching Michigan’s St. Clair County than in any other spot in the Great Lakes. Now the population of the once-threatened species appears to be growing, thanks in part to clean effluent produced by the Port Huron Wastewater Treatment Plant in partnership with Friends of the St. Clair River.
Sheri Faust, an environmental health educator with the St. Clair County Health Department and president of Friends of the St. Clair River, says the largest known spawning area in the Great Lakes is at Port Huron’s doorstep — the St. Clair River just south of the Blue Water Bridge.
While other sturgeon populations around the Great Lakes have declined, they have thrived in the St. Clair. Every year during the height of the fish’s spawning run in late May and early June, the Blue Water Sturgeon Festival celebrates that achievement.
In its fourth year in 2016, the festival reached attendance of more than 6,000, up from 1,000 in its first year. “It’s unique to this area,” says Faust. “That’s what makes it so exciting and such a neat opportunity. Families can actually come down and see a species up close that normally cruises the depths of the Great Lakes.”
The clean waters of the St. Clair River create a sense of pride for the employees of the Port Huron Wastewater Treatment Plant, an 11 mgd activated sludge facility that discharges into the river near the harbor. The plant is a main sponsor and partner of the festival. Patty Troy, lab manager, says plant staff members are instrumental in planning and assisting, and for fifth-grade sturgeon-sighting field trips on the Huron Lady II.
“We have more sturgeon here than any other place in the Great Lakes,” Troy says. “It’s a narrow window of time when they migrate through for spawning. It’s a great opportunity for us to talk about our work and the importance of clean water.”
The Port Huron plant has been on the forefront of several efforts to make the harbor more inviting for spawning fish. Among the accomplishments was the recent removal of the Beach Closings Beneficial Use Impairment designation, due in part to the elimination of combined sewer overflows.
Michigan Sea Grant recently funded construction of three spawning reefs in the river for sturgeon and other species. Fish nursery habitat is another project. Community outreach and inspections sharply reduced pollutant loadings and spills by industries and coastal municipalities. Contaminated sediments along the Canadian shoreline have been removed, and plans are in place to address remaining impaired sediments.
“The people who work at our plant are very proud of the river and the work we have done and continue to do to keep it clean,” says Troy. “It’s very important to us to maintain a suitable habitat for fish, and seeing our sturgeon numbers grow shows that the work we’re doing is helping.”
The Sturgeon Festival includes demonstrations where attendees can touch a live sturgeon. The Huron Lady II offers multiple sturgeon cruises, trolling a diver with a camera so passengers can watch live video of sturgeon. Booths focus on the biology and life cycle of sturgeon, water quality, and past work on fish habitat restoration.
“The overall improved health of the river is vital toward supporting the unique resource of the lake sturgeon, which the Sturgeon Festival celebrates,” says Troy. “I don’t think you can find a more concentrated population anywhere than under the Blue Water Bridge during the spawning run. It truly is amazing, and should be celebrated.”
The festival also includes a 5K race and a 1K fun run; proceeds are split between Friends of the St. Clair and St. Clair-Detroit River Sturgeon for Tomorrow. “We think that brings more families down to the festival,” Faust says.
This year some 500 fifth-graders took the sturgeon cruises on Friday, and another 300 people did so on Saturday. The students earn their cruises by competing in a sturgeon-themed poster contest; winning posters were used to promote the festival.
“The cruises booked up very quickly, and we actually had to turn a lot of people away,” Faust says. “It’s a pretty rare opportunity that we wish we could offer more. The students really get into it.”
While sturgeon are the highlight of the festival, Faust sees the event to educate attendees on larger issues facing the Great Lakes and each person’s impact: “I’d say the sturgeon are the hook that gets people in, but the broader look is on the health of the water quality and wildlife. All the components we include deal with the overall health of the river and Lake Huron.”
Sign of health
That method has worked; Faust sees more people taking ownership of the environment. “The more people come in contact with the sturgeon, the more they want to take care of the river,” she says.
In the end, Faust believes a strong population of sturgeon is sign of a healthy river:
“They really are a spotlight species. If we manage and protect sturgeon successfully and the area population grows, that means our river and lake are healthy.”