Flooding not a disaster for St. Louis River estuary

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 26, 2012 - 9:45 PM

The St. Louis River estuary in Duluth remains clouded with red silt, a fresh reminder of last week's flooding.

But what impact will all that water -- and the tons of clay and sand still suspended in it -- have on the walleyes, sturgeon, muskies and other fish there?

Possibly not much, said John Lindgren, senior fisheries specialist for the Department of Natural Resources in Duluth. He doesn't believe the estuary ecosystem has been permanently damaged.

"Heavy sediment events in this estuary are not uncommon, because of the clay soils," he said. "Certainly this is as dramatic as I've ever seen it, but fish are used to it. I think the adult fish are fine."

The eggs from late spawners such as bluegills, crappies and bass could be buried in silt and die, he said. But walleyes that hatched earlier this spring likely were big enough to survive the onslaught of water, silt and debris.

DNR biologists probably won't know the storm's true impact until fish populations are sampled this fall. But Lindgren acknowledged that the flood broke new ground.

"It's mind-boggling the amount of mud," he said. Normally such sediment settles out within a week or so, but this might last longer. The DNR will watch to see if fish die from the event, though Lindgren doubts that will happen.

And the flood brought some benefits: Many trees and limbs were washed down the river.

"There's lots of new woody debris that has been deposited in shallow areas," Lindgren said. "It's good cover. That's a positive for the estuary."

But an unanswered question is whether the floodwaters damaged the sturgeon habitat restoration work that occurred in the St. Louis in 2009, part of a continuing effort to restore sturgeon there.

About 1,500 tons of rock were placed below the Fond du Lac Dam in a $150,000 project to recreate a spawning area for sturgeon (and walleyes). It was a success; officials found spawning sturgeon there last year.

"We have no idea of what that area will look like [when water recedes]," Lindgren said.

The sturgeon likely survived the onslaught, he said.

Meanwhile, few anglers are out on the river or St. Louis Bay because of the silt. Lindgren said he expects fish will be dormant until the sediment settles. Out on Lake Superior, charter boats have shifted farther up the North Shore to escape the cloud of sediment.

"People are fishing," said Russ Francisco of Marine General in Duluth. "There's a lot of wood in the water. You just have to be careful, and don't go out after dark.''

Doug Smith • dsmith@startribune.com Twitter: @dougsmithstrib

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