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Agencies say fish, wildlife populations rebounded in St. Louis River Estuary

A public meeting is set to remove another impairment from the river's infamous list of troubles.

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An adult and common tern and chick on their nest at Interstate Island in the St. Louis River Estuary. Natural Resource agencies say fish and wildlife in the estuary have recovered enough to scratch degraded fish wildlife populations off the list of historic impairments caused by legacy pollution and habitat destruction.
Bob King / 2016 file / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Government agencies in charge of cleaning up the St. Louis River Estuary say they are ready to check off another of the river’s major historic problems as mostly fixed.

Officials this week said they want the public to comment on their plan to remove the official “impairment” for degraded fish and wildlife populations.

The estuary is one of 42 hotpots across the Great Lakes designated in 1987 as an Area of Concern after decades of abuse from waterfront industries, habitat destruction and municipal sewage pollution. The estuary suffered from nine major impairments, with multiple environmental problems ranging from aesthetics (how the river looked and smelled) to wildlife and fish habitat, wildlife and fish numbers, toxic sediments and more.

For lower St. Louis River, legacy issues included unregulated discharge of industrial and municipal waste, dredging and filling in estuary

When all nine of those historic impairments are considered fixed, or fixed as much as possible, then the estuary’s label as an Area of Concern will be removed.

The agencies say they have taken several steps to improve fish and wildlife numbers, including studies that show the estuary’s restored capacity to support healthy populations of musky and walleye as well as efforts to restore piping plover nesting habitat at Wisconsin Point and common tern habitat on Interstate Island in the harbor.

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The restoration is necessary because the island is shrinking. As it becomes smaller, gulls are outcompeting terns for nesting space.

While lake sturgeon still haven’t rebounded to historic levels, apparently due to poor reproductive survival, the issues impacting their recovery are outside the parameters of the Area of Concern effort. They also note that eagle, blue heron and songbird numbers along the estuary have rebounded.

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Gary Meader / Duluth News Tribune

Fish and wildlife would be the fourth impairment considered fixed for the estuary. If the remaining five are tackled, supporters hope to have the estuary delisted by 2030 and to celebrate the revival of the lower river’s ecosystem, at least from historic impacts. The Area of Concern effort doesn’t tackle modern impacts, such as mercury deposition or climate change.

An in-person open house meeting is set for April 14 from 5-6:30 p.m. at the Lake Superior Estuary Reserve headquarters, 14 Marina Drive, on Barker's Island in Superior.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources are involved in the decadeslong cleanup effort along with help from the St. Louis River Alliance and other nonprofits.

Public comments on the impairment removal proposal will be accepted until 4:30 p.m. April 26. Information about the agency’s recommendations, and details on how to submit comments, can be found at dnr.state.mn.us/st-louis-river-restoration/index.html .

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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