July 10, 2020|By Eric Wuestewald| Wildlife

How Saginaw Bay Restored an Historic Fish Spawning Habitat

The Conservation Fund’s  Saginaw Bay Watershed Initiative Network (WIN) program has spent years rebuilding the historic fish spawning habitats to restore resilient and diverse fish population throughout the bay. The culmination of this work can be seen in the 15-minute long documentary, Coreyon. Produced by Fauna Creative, the film follows Saginaw Bay WIN and its partners as they work to restore 2 acres of reef and ensure a sustainable fish population and fishing economy throughout the Bay. 

After the film’s release, we spoke with Laura Ogar, Director of the Bay County Department of Environmental Affairs and Community Development, to learn more about the project and its impact.  

The Conservation Fund: How did this project get started?  

Laura Ogar: For my part, it started the week I started my job here in 2001. As I was moving into my office,  I found a stapled report, typed in old typewriter font dated 1968. It was a Study of the Conditions of the Saginaw Bay Fish Spawning Reefs. It described the historic fish spawning reefs located as glacial remnants in the bay that had over time been buried by sediment. The report went on to describe the bay bottom in 1968 as mostly sand and silt covered, lacking fish spawning habitat. I read that and I immediately wanted to get that reef restored. 

I started asking around and making the case that we need to restore the spawning reef and I was told finally that it wasn’t going to happen.  “What has changed at all?”  “They were buried by sediment. Would there be any different outcome? – if we restored the reefs, they would just get buried again.  It is not a good use of public money.” It was frustrating as it was general knowledge that most of the sediment in the bay had washed off agricultural land and drained into the rivers, settling down once it got to the bay.   

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The Fund: What changed? 

LO: I stayed a skeptic for many many many years.  But two things happened.  The agriculture incentive programs kept evolving, and agricultural studies started to show that new cover crop type soil conservation practices could benefit growth rates and soil productivity. Cover crop seeds planted at the same time allowed secondary leaf crops to flourish during harvest, keeping the ground covered and soil in place. That meant significantly less erosion from wind or rain, less sedimentation and deposition in the bay and better soil health in the field.  Win, win, win.   

Around 2010, a scientific sediment loading model was developed and undertaken for the Saginaw River. The model results showed that there were geographic areas now in the Saginaw Bay that would no longer receive heavy sediment loading. Within that geography were a number of the historic fish spawning reef sites—namely the Coreyon reef site.    

The Fund: Have you seen any changes in Saginaw Bay since this project started?    

LO: Yes, we’ve seen an interest tick up. People are excited and curious about a reef being built in the Saginaw Bay. A fish spawning reef is pretty cool! 

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The Fund: What does the restoration project mean to the communities around the Bay?  

LO: It means we are well on our way to healthier, more whole ecosystem, that we are finally moving past our tragic past of environmental degradation and loss and negative impacts, and we are finally moving into a restored condition. It means environmental restoration and closing the doors on our harmed past. Socially, it means health and wellness from the water up.  Economically, it means for really the first time in probably 100 years we can speak proudly about the bounty of the bay, whether you fish or not. The bay is alive and that makes everything more alive.  

“The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has estimated the value of Saginaw Bay’s recreational fishery at $30 million. Communities around the Saginaw Bay and the river systems that feed it depend on a sustainable fishery to support businesses that depend on tourism and recreation. Restoring these reef complexes are an important way to preserve and invigorate these fish species that people come from all around the country to enjoy.

Healthy reefs support spawning fish populations, and encourage recreational fishing and tourism that is estimated to be valued at $30 million in the Saginaw Bay region.”

The Fund: What does this project mean to you personally?

LO: It’s awesome. It is a serious and significant professional goal accomplished. One I always believed would happen but wasn’t sure if I’d be around for it. It’s tough to move a mountain, but we did it. We made a mountain out there, a shallow but interesting enough feature for fish propagation. 

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The Fund:
 How have partnerships made this work possible?   

LO: This would not have happened without partnerships. The scientists couldn’t get funded without local community participation to show value and meaning for sustainability purposes.  The community couldn’t get funding without the science to show it wouldn’t be a folly. The funders wouldn’t have had a project to fund if it wasn’t for some dedicated stakeholders. 

The Fund: What have you learned from this experience?   

LO: Persistence pays off. If you believe in something, don’t give up on it. 

To learn more about the Coreyon project and Saginaw Bay Watershed Initiative Network, watch the full video here

Written By

Eric Wuestewald

Eric is the Digital Content Marketing Manager for The Conservation Fund. He leads the development, writing and editing of strategic content for the Marketing and Communications teams to reach key audiences and partners through blogs, social media, web content and more. Prior to this role, he was the Marketing and Communications Specialist for the Fund's Conservation Services programs, supporting communication and outreach strategies for projects which promote environmental preservation, economic development and social justice.