Friday, February 3rd, 2023
Friday, February 3rd, 2023

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In Michigan, drifting sand threatens Lake Superior spawning reef

Lake Linden, Mich. — Officials with federal, state, local and tribal groups will hold a public meeting in Lake Linden later this month to discuss plans to protect an important lake trout and whitefish spawning reef from migrating stamp sands.

Roughly a quarter of lake trout in the Michigan waters of Lake Superior originate from Buffalo Reef, and stamp sands – a byproduct of copper processing in Wolverine and Mohawk stamp mills in the early 1900s – is beginning to smother the 2,200-acre area by filling the gaps between small rocks the fish use to spawn.

About 22 million cubic yards of stamp sands were hauled from the mills and dumped along the Lake Superior shoreline near Gay in the early 1900s, and it has slowly eroded to about 2.3 million cubic yards remaining today. The rest was carried by longshore currents, winds and waves south along the shoreline toward the Grand Traverse Harbor, five miles away.

An ancient trough in the lake bottom served as a buffer to Buffalo Reef and its critical adjacent rearing areas, but that trough is now filled with stamp sands, which have since carried on to cover about 35 percent of the reef, Michigan DNR spokesman John Pepin told Michigan Outdoor News.

“It’s definitely a really important reef for lake trout and whitefish, and that has the Keweenaw Indian community concerned, it’s got sport fishermen concerned,” Pepin said. “At Grand Traverse Harbor, now the sands are coming over the retaining wall. A lot of it has to do with the southward progression of the sands. They’re hoping to stop it from going farther south.”

The DNR is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, state Department of Environmental Quality, local tribal officials, and other stakeholders to devise a long-term plan to protect Buffalo Reef. The group will host a public meeting at the Lake Linden-Hubbell High School Auditorium from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Jan. 30.

Officials, scientists and technical experts will also discuss strategy the next day during a closed session at Michigan Tech’s Great Lakes Research Center.

The long-term solution will likely remove remaining sands along the shoreline, involve a retaining structure near the harbor, and call for continued dredging to protect both Buffalo Reef and the natural sand beaches south of the Grand Traverse harbor. Officials are exploring options for using the stamp sands, such as filling in old mines. Local road crews could also use some on the roads.

The DNR is also working with the Army Corps through a $3.1 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to dredge both the harbor and the ancient trough this spring.

The idea “is to dredge the trough to make more buffering – so it buys time so we can develop a longer term plan,” said Phil Schneeberger, the DNR’s Lake Superior Basin coordinator. “We want the longer term plan developed as soon as possible, so we can find out what we need to do and how to fund it.”

Buffalo Reef “is very important (for whitefish and lake trout) locally, in particular, and the tribes that are fishing commercially and the recreational anglers,” he said.

The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission estimates the annual economic benefit of the reef at $1.7 million.

“The Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, as well as other tribes located around Lake Superior, are and have always been fishing tribes,” KBIC President Chris Swartz said in a DNR release. “Since time immemorial, these tribes have used the resources provided by gitchi-gami (Lake Superior) to sustain their communities. This sustenance is not only physical; it is also spiritual, cultural, medicinal and economic.”

Swartz estimates $1 million in tribal fishing jobs would be lost, along with 125,000 pounds of whitefish and 12,500 pounds of lake trout, if Buffalo Reef is smothered by stamp sands.

“There would be additional impacts to the recreational fishery, as well as to local businesses that rely on locally caught fish,” Swartz told the DNR. “Buffalo Reef is also important as a source of genetic diversity to Lake Superior. Fish tagged on the reef have been caught as far away as Pancake Bay, Ontario and the western arm of Lake Superior.”

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