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Why certain fish prefer Canadian side of Lake St. Clair over U.S. side

Small fish in Lake St. Clair heavily favor the Canadian shore, a team of international biologists found this summer, which some anglers say might give that side of the lake an edge during spawning seasons.

The nature of Michigan's shoreline is likely to blame. Or, rather, the lack of it. 

Ontario's side of Lake St. Clair is less developed than Michigan's, more shaped by natural wetland marshes than the steel seawalls and piles of concrete and rocks that border much of Michigan's side. 

"It's prime-time real estate, so we've developed that area and put houses really close to the water's edge," said Cleyo Harris, a Michigan Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist. "To protect those properties, we've also created hard armoring."

American and Canadian biologists who recently launched an ongoing collaborative study of Lake St. Clair argue the contrasting shorelines are behind the staggering results from the first round of surveys — a catch rate that was 10 times higher along the Ontario shore.

That could put Michigan anglers at a disadvantage when fishing for certain species, like bluegill and small panfish, that prefer the lake's Ontario side. It makes expeditions more expensive as Americans need a Canadian fishing license to traverse the eastern shore of Lake St. Clair, which costs $8.57 a day, $53.38 for eight days or $81 for a year, plus the cost of lengthier transport.

"They have a lot more wetland habitat than we do and that's very conducive to young fish," said Andrew Briggs, a state DNR fisheries research biologist at the Lake St. Clair Fisheries Research Station. "It's good nursery habitat for young fish, good spawning habitat. Not just for fish. Other wildlife gravitate toward that wetland habitat."

The Great Lakes waterway that bridges Lakes Huron and Erie is notoriously challenging to study, Briggs said. The lake is big, it contains many species of fish and its conditions can change as easily as Michigan weather. While Lake St. Clair is well known to anglers as a world-class fishing spot, it contains a lot of mysteries for biologists. 

That's why scientists from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Ontario Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service launched the Collaborative Lake St. Clair Fishery Assessment. They hope it will help them understand how many fish are in the lake and where they live. 

They will survey the lake on a three-year cycle, first looking for small fish near the shore, then larger fish in other parts of the lake.

The biologists hit the water for the first time in July, setting fyke nets at 110 sites along the shoreline and recording what swam inside. They were looking for small fish like bluegill, sunfish and minnows, and young fish that will grow large, such as largemouth and smallmouth bass. 

Researchers placed 70 nets in Michigan; 90% were along hardened shoreline. They placed 40 nets in Ontario, with 53% along hardened shoreline. 

"Overall fish catch rate was 10 times higher on the Canadian side of the lake, likely related to better nearshore habitat," biologists wrote in a summary of their findings which was provided to The Detroit News. The full report will be released next year.

People who own lakeside houses install seawalls and "riprap," or piles of rock or concrete, to protect their shoreline from erosion, said Rick Fleming, owner of Fleming Marine, a marine construction business in Clare. Waves can eat away at the shoreline and sometimes threaten homes or other structures.

Seawalls and riprap are extremely common along southern Michigan's heavily developed lakes, Fleming said. 

The shoreline is more natural on Ontario's side on the lake simply because fewer people live along the shore, said Ray Trahan of Mitchell's Bay, Ontario. Trahan works at a marina in Mitchell's Bay and volunteers with the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary. 

"It's just because of population" that Michigan's shoreline has more seawalls, Trahan said. "When you buy a waterfront property, you want to protect it so that 20, 30 years down the road you still have the same lot line. You don't want to see your lot line out in the water someplace."

It is no surprise the biologists found more fish along natural shoreline instead of seawalls, said Phil Wetzel, an Algonac resident who fishes the St. Clair River almost daily and the lake several times a year. Vegetation provides the base of the food chain, from plankton on up. That makes for good fishing.

"You've got square miles worth of standing reeds and really heavy water that's still in pretty shallow, calm water," he said. "That's just a fish nursery type of environment." 

Wetzel maintained there is good habitat on the American side and said he's never felt the need to buy a Canadian fishing license since there's always something to catch closer to home. He said boat traffic might also be to blame for churning up the water and hurting fish habitat on the Michigan shore. 

Lake St. Clair is a thriving fishing destination, said John Bacarella, owner of Sportsmen's Direct bait and fishing shops in New Baltimore and Harrison Township, but the biologists' findings show it could be better. All the critters in the lake would  benefit if there were fewer seawalls and more wetlands on the lake's Michigan side, from plants, to bugs, to tiny fish and the larger fish that eat them, he said.

"The whole ecosystem benefits when you have that marshland," Bacarella said. "And water quality, too. Marshes are like a natural filter."

Bacarella pointed to other factors that might make Michigan's heavily developed shoreline less welcoming to plants, bugs and fish, including some Michigan homeowners dumping weed killer into the lake and nearby rivers.

Lake St. Clair's Michigan shore, as well as many southern Michigan waterways, are too developed to reclaim as the natural marshland fish love, said Fleming, who builds and repairs existing sea walls.

"You're never going to get those lakes to be natural shorelines again," he said. "It's just too far gone, unfortunately. It's one of those things — as people and agencies that are put in place to protect the lakes and the environment, they're just a little bit late to the party as far as really protecting them the way that should."

But biologists' findings on fish along the lakeshore could help support efforts to return parts of Michigan's shoreline into something more natural, the DNR's Briggs said.

Some projects are already underway but are small and in public places like parks, including Brandenburg Park in Chesterfield Township, the DNR's Harris said. A coalition of local, state and federal groups are just finishing a shoreline restoration project at the park to create a pocket of habitat for fish along the mostly developed shoreline.

"We wanted to take away that hardened shoreline, create some slope out there as well as create some wave (protection), so we can have this nearshore area that would be able to remain vegetated and be able to fluctuate with the Great Lakes water levels as they go. That nearshore area is immensely valuable for a very broad number of species."