Donning face masks that read “FishPass,” tribal leaders, federal representatives, and city officials planted shovels into the earth above the Union Street Dam in Traverse City on Saturday.
The occasion marks the beginning of the FishPass project, a first-of-its-kind initiative to control which fish species can swim and spawn up the Boardman River. The goal is to open the river to many of its native fish while keeping invasives, like the sea lamprey, at bay.
Many natives, like suckers, have “been denied a way home by walls and fences,” for nearly a century, said Brett Fessell, an ecologist with the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.
The project would restore the river to something close to its natural state.
“It's kind of exciting because the whole food web historically was to a large extent driven by these runs of native fish,” said Andrew Muir, Science Director of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission.
But the task of sorting fish is neither cheap nor easy. “It’s a problem that’s never been solved,” explained Muir.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers awarded a contract for $19.3 million to the Spence Brothers Construction of Traverse City to replace the Union Street Dam with a structure to sort fish migrating upriver.
Construction is expected to continue until the end of 2022. Then, researchers will spend a decade testing ways to change fish behavior, like altering water flow speeds, before they allow fish to swim upriver.
“By the end of that, we should be pretty good at sorting animals,” said Muir. “That’s our hope.”
Muir led the groundbreaking ceremony, joined by Rep. Jack Bergman, Chairman David Arroyo of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, and City Manager Marty Colburn.