You can point to milestones like the 1997 removal of the North Ave. dam on the Milwaukee and more recent efforts to tear out concrete-lined, channelized stretches of the KK and Menomonee.
Tighter pollution controls and better storm-water management have helped, too.
But our urban waterways still have a long way to go to reach the goal of “fishable and swimmable.”
I was reminded how much work remains last week when reviewing results of a Milwaukee River fish survey conducted by the Department of Natural Resources.
Each spring the agency uses electro-shocking gear to stun and capture fish in the lower stretches of the river. The work provides a valuable snapshot of the fish community at a critical time of year for species that make upriver spawning runs.
The catch last week included walleyes, northern pike, smallmouth bass and redhorse suckers, all native, desirable species, as well as common carp, an invasive exotic. Two lake sturgeon were spotted, too, but not captured.
The size of the fish, especially the walleyes, was impressive. The 11 walleyes caught (three males and eight females) ranged from 20 to 27 inches in length; three fish weighed more than 8 pounds, with the heaviest at 8.7 pounds.
But the real story is not the healthy-looking, mature walleyes. It’s the lack of small fish.
All the walleyes caught last week are vestiges of a stocking project discontinued in 2008. About 10,000 extended growth walleyes were stocked annually from 1995 to 2007 in the Milwaukee harbor or local rivers.
The fish helped enhance shore and river fishing opportunities in the urban environment.
But no natural reproduction of walleyes has been documented.
In 20 years of testing, the DNR has not found a young walleye in shocking surveys or in larval tows designed to find recently hatched fish, said Brad Eggold, southern Lake Michigan fisheries supervisor.
When fish speak, it’s wise to listen.
The habitat in the Milwaukee River system, it seems, isn’t suitable for Wisconsin’s most-prized game fish.
Northern pike have been able to pull off modest year classes, despite no assist from stocking. Smallmouth bass and redhorse seem to be faring pretty well on their own, too.
The verdict is still out on lake sturgeon, which have been stocked since 2006 in the Milwaukee River but take 12 years for males and 20 for females to reach maturity.
So what will it take to re-establish a self-sustaining walleye population in the Milwaukee River or estuary? And since Lake Michigan has changed so dramatically with the invasion of exotic mussels, does the more productive environment of the Milwaukee harbor offer a place for yellow perch, another valuable native fish in need of help?
Answers to tough questions don’t often come quickly.
Those of us who’d like to see better urban fishing opportunities in Milwaukee can take some hope from the Fund for Lake Michigan’s 2016 projects.
Among its 26 grants announced earlier this year, the biggest — $190,000 — was awarded to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences to conduct an “extensive aquatic habitat survey of the city’s harbor.” The university will work with the DNR, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Harbor District Inc. and other stakeholders to advance harbor rehabilitation.
“The long-term goal of this study is to restore a thriving recreational fishery and vibrant wildlife population in the heart of urban Milwaukee,” said Vicki Elkin, executive director of the fund.
The Fund for Lake Michigan was established in 2011 by We Energies, Madison Gas & Electric and WPPI Energy to support efforts to safeguard the lake and improve water quality in the region.
It’s obviously important to know the status of habitat in the harbor and lower river. Hopefully once the assessment is completed, a plan will be formulated to restore or construct necessary sites for natural reproduction of walleyes, yellow perch and other native fish.
I never tire of seeing big, healthy fish.
But 10 or 20 years from now, if the lower Milwaukee River is pulsing with a broad range of year classes of native fish, including naturally spawned, inch-long perch and walleyes, we’ll know the restoration of our urban waterway has achieved a real measure of success.
River work: The 2016 Spring River Cleanup will take place April 23 in the Milwaukee River basin. The 21st annual effort, led by Milwaukee Riverkeeper, will include work at 50 sites on the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers. Last year, more than 3,500 volunteers hauled about 70,000 pounds of trash out of the rivers, according to organizers. Bags, gloves and a free T-shirt are provided to volunteers. The cleanup runs from 9 a.m. to noon. A “Trash Bash” with music, food and refreshments will be held from noon to 2 p.m. at Estabrook Park on the Milwaukee River, Hoyt Park on the Menomonee River and Pulaski Park on the Kinnickinnic River. To register or get more information, visitmilwaukeeriverkeeper.org, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (414) 431-0907.
Article by Paul Smith, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel