Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Partners are Revitalizing the Detroit River’s Ecosystem and Supporting a Healthy Economy

Belle Isle

(July 2018) In the Great Lakes, NOAA’s Office of Habitat Conservation is partnering with the Friends of the Detroit River, a dedicated group of local citizens charged by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to work in support of the Detroit River Public Advisory Council. Together we’re cleaning up and restoring the Detroit River, which is listed as a Great Lakes Area of Concern due to high levels of pollution from decades of industry and development.

Looking downstream of the Detroit River at Belle Isle. Photo by the Detroit Riverkeeper

NOAA has worked with Friends of the Detroit River since 2013 to increase spawning, nursery, and foraging habitat in the river from Belle Isle at the upstream end to Celeron Island near the mouth leading into Lake Erie.

Our collaboration also has positive impacts to local economies and communities. Significant recreational and economic benefits are anticipated as a result of these projects, enhancing southeast Michigan’s quality of life and further strengthening the Great Lakes fishery, which is worth $4-7 billion annually. Economic studies within the Great Lakes considering the impact of habitat restoration on the local community have found that every dollar spent on habitat restoration can result in a six dollar return on investment to the community. (See article in the Journal of Great Lakes Research.)

One effort initiated early in the partnership is the Stony Island restoration project. With funds from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, NOAA contributed to the design and oversaw construction of this project. Almost two-thirds of a mile of shoal was recently completed increasing and protecting more than 50 acres of valuable coastal wetlands for habitat-limited recreational and commercial fish species like state threatened lake sturgeon, northern pike, walleye, and others important to the Great Lakes.

Along with native fish, the entire ecosystem benefits from the restoration and protection of important habitat for amphibians, reptiles, and birds like the state of Michigan threatened common tern.

One of the protective shoals under construction at Stony Island. Photo by Great Lakes Aggregates.

Similar habitat restoration work is in the planning and design stages or is under construction at Celeron Island, Belle Isle, Sugar Island and Pointe Hennepin - all benefiting the ecology of the Detroit River. NOAA’s partnership with the Friends of the Detroit River expects to restore more than 100 acres of fish spawning and nursery habitat, almost a mile of in-stream habitat, and reconnect more than 150 miles of rivers and streams which will all benefit the community.

These sites are unique in that they’re a part of the world’s largest freshwater system and are helping improve the ecosystem of the only international wildlife refuge in the U.S., which was historically a complex ecosystem of rivers, streams, and wetlands back in the early 1800s.

Prior to the wave of industrialization along the Detroit River, its resources attracted European settlers and because of its location for shipping eventually became part of a massive industrial economy including shipbuilding, steelmaking and automobile manufacturing sustaining generations of residents.

As industry and commerce grew throughout the Great Lakes and in Detroit specifically, dramatic changes occurred. The river was deepened and its shoreline hardened, tributaries channelized, and the wetlands were filled for development. Additionally the valuable fresh water was used for manufacturing and the area became a dumping area for industrial waste.

These physical changes and industrial pollution eliminated important habitat for the fish and wildlife living in or moving through the Detroit River, leading to the unfortunate designation of the river as an Area of Concern in 1987.

A "habitat shoal". Photo by Friends of the Detroit River.

More about the photos:

  1. Looking downstream of the Detroit River at Belle Isle. This international river follows the border between the United States and Canada with the City of Detroit on the right and the City of Windsor on the left.

  2. One of the protective shoals under construction at Stony Island. In addition to stopping the erosion of an important coastal marsh, the shoal provides habitat for fish, amphibians, such as the mudpuppy, and reptiles. The surface of this particular shoal is being prepared as a nesting site for the common tern, a listed species in Michigan.

  3. One of the “Habitat Shoals” that incorporates plantings and structures to provide a variety of habitats for fish and wildlife within the structure itself.