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The battle of the Boardman

Patrick Sullivan - August 1st, 2011
Lovers of trout streams should long for the day when the Boardman River
flows north into Traverse City unobstructed by dams, as wild, free and
clear as nature intended.
But some trout fishermen worry about one consequence that could come with
the removal of the dams -- the Michigan Department of Natural resources is
considering allowing salmon or steelhead to swim upstream once the new
river configuration is in place.
Michael Delp, an avid fishermen, author and retired writing instructor for
Interlochen Center for the Arts, is afraid of what the large sport fish
could do to the character of the river.
“Big fish draw lots of people, and you can walk lots of beautiful streams
in Northern Michigan after salmon season, and they’re just obliterated
with litter, salmon carcasses,” Delp said. “Steelhead fishermen I don’t
think are quite as bad, in quote marks, as the salmon fishermen, but I
worry about the toll on the river and the totality of its environment.”

Salmon and steelhead now swim past a fish ladder at the Union Street dam
but they are stopped upriver by the Sabin dam. Once that dam and two more
are removed, the Union Street dam, which will be modified, will be the
last line of defense between the upper Boardman and the Great Lakes.
Some species -- like sea lamprey and round goby -- need to be kept out,
said Todd Kalish, DNR Fisheries biologist. It’s an open question what
species should be allowed in. Under consideration are lake trout, walleye,
small-mouth bass, lake sturgeon, and the more controversial sport fish,
Kalish said.
Kalish said there will be a symposium in early 2012 to educate and take
input from interested parties.
Officials can’t wait too long before making a decision, though -- removal
of the dams is fast approaching.
Officials are currently awaiting approval of permit applications to draw
down Sabin and Brownbridge ponds. If approved the ponds are expected to be
drawn down gradually into October, Kalish said.
In the meantime, the permit applications to remove Brown Bridge and Sabin
dams will be finalized. Those dams are expected to be deconstructed in
2012, when the permitting process to remove Boardman dam and modify the
Union Street dam will take place.

It’s unclear what affect salmon and steelhead could have on brown and
brook trout populations.
Delp said he is concerned because the sport fish are larger than trout.
“Big fish eat little fish,” Delp said.
Jeff Jocks, an attorney and president of the Adams Chapter of Trout
Unlimited in Traverse City, agreed that it is unclear what would happen to
the trout.
“There are multiple opinions out there, but I understand the species most
likely to be affected is the brook trout population,” Jocks said.
That’s because if steelhead are introduced, juvenile steelhead will remain
upstream for a year before they go out to the lake. During that time they
would compete with young brook trout, Jocks said. Juvenile salmon, on the
other hand, do not linger in the river before heading out to the lake.
Kalish agreed there should be concern over what might happen to the trout
species. But he said there are plenty of examples of rivers where trout
and salmon and steelhead live side-by-side-by-side and they all succeed.
In Northern Michigan, Kalish pointed to the Little Manistee and the Pere
Marquette rivers.

Regardless of biological consequences, Delp remains worried that the human
reaction to the new species could be devastating.
There’s already a lot of competition for space on the river, Delp said. On
a warm day, kayakers, canoeists, tubers and fishermen all want to be out
“It’s a beautiful, beautiful stream, but if you saw it on the weekend in
the summer, it looks like a circus out here. It’s just really glutted with
traffic,” Delp said. “I just don’t like the idea that there’s going to be
a lot more people on the river fishing.”
One problem is the lack of public access to places that might become
popular should salmon or steelhead be allowed in.
“The middle Boardman doesn’t have any good access points,” Delp said. “I
think that that poses another problem.”
Delp, who owns a cabin on the Boardman, said he worries that could mean an
increase in trespassing on private land.
“They all should have access to the resource, there’s no question,” Delp
said. “I mean, we own the water in trust, in common as citizens, but we
need to use it smart and we need to sit down and talk about it before
people start to exploit it.”

Ryan Matuzak, a charter fisherman who captains a boat called the Streaker
and is president of the Grand Traverse Area Sport Fishing Association, is
an advocate for a healthy and large salmon population.
But he said he understands when someone like Delp is worried about a place
they love to fish.
“What I see is a group who wants to see their fishing spot protected,”
Matuzak. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”
He said with increased traffic on a lake or a river, fishing groups just
have to get more vigilant about ensuring people follow the rules. If
rivers get too rowdy, that’s a matter that requires self-policing.
“You don’t see boat launches all filthy and nasty because we won’t
tolerate that kind of activity,” Matuzak said.
Matuzak, whose group of around 500 members helps stock salmon in Grand
Traverse Bay each spring, said the organization hasn’t taken a position
yet on the introduction of salmon or steelhead in the Upper Boardman.
“In my group there’s a pretty diverse cross-section of people and there
are divergent opinions on it,” he said. “There’s interesting thought
processes from people on both sides.”
He also said he’s not convinced letting salmon spawn upstream would
eliminate the need to stock Grand Traverse Bay with chinook, coho and
steelhead, a job the DNR is hoping would no longer be necessary.
“I would want to know more about exactly what would happen,” before
abandoning the stocking programs, he said.

Sports fishermen may be divided, but when local members of Trout Unlimited
took a symbolic vote on the issue, they soundly rejected allowing sports
fish in, Jocks said.
“Our position is that we want fish passage in the Boardman limited to a
certain spot,” Jocks said. “We don’t want fish going all the way up
through the system.”
The Boardman is already a good, healthy fishery, so Trout Unlimited
members don’t want to risk jeopardizing that balance, he said.
Delp hopes to start an organization that would focus on the health of the
Boardman River watershed.
“NMEAC (Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council) is a great
organization, and it really does its job in terms of watching out for the
environment up here, but there are a lot of organizations and there’s no
core organization that really really protects the (Boardman) watershed,”
Delp said.
Controversy over salmon and steelhead in the Boardman follows controversy
over dam removal itself.
Dam removal became a contentious topic when Traverse City Light and Power,
operator of the hydroelectric dams, declared them obsolete in 2005.
Removal of the dams means the river will return to its natural flow and
ponds will disappear, disenfranchising some waterfront property owners.
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