Steelheaders group works to help fish survive
Written by Grand Rapids Press   
Friday, 04 March 2005 09:07

If something appeared fishy last weekend as Bob Strek and other Grand Rapids Steelheaders stood on the frozen ponds of Millennium Park wiring Rube Goldberg fish condos together, they will seem even fishier come spring.


That's when the 20 cinder block-laden structures will sink through the ice and create fish hideaways on the bottoms of two park ponds.

"We're trying to build a safe haven for small fish in those ponds, to give them a place to get away from the bigger predator fish," said Strek, a board member for the local steelheader chapter, who directed work on the ice last weekend.

Strek and his group will be returning to finish the job this weekend, a project requested by Kent County Parks in keeping with a partnership that was forged between the two organizations last year.

Along with improving fish habitat at Millennium Park ponds, the Steelheaders will be renovating the former Willow Tree Fish Farm, now part of the park.

"The fish farm ponds have been neglected over the years so the Steelheaders are going to improve them and raise fish there," said Roger Sabine, the Kent County Parks director. "The fish will be whatever they can raise, and they will either be released to park lakes or rivers as approved by the DNR." Growth option

Strek said his group had planned to raise salmon and walleye. The DNR, however, would not approve the plan, so the nine ponds on the Willow Tree property now may be used to raise panfish in order to stock park ponds.

"Our hope was to get some of the fish the DNR dumps into the river from a truck and hold them until they fatten up and then dump them in the Grand River," Strek said. "But the DNR feels there is not a need for that at this time, so our fall-back is to raise panfish and stock the park ponds and teach people how to fish."

DNR staffers said that isn't quite the case. Raising fish for park ponds and teaching others is preferred simply because it is the easiest option.

"The salmon option is still on the table, if the group can address the issues. But we want to be sure if we put 50,000 salmon in there that they survive," said Jay Wesley, the DNR fisheries supervisor for southwest Michigan.

Wesley had been invited to inspect the facility and make recommendations.

His inspection showed that ample work would need to be done to make the facility usable for imprinting salmon. Water temperature and oxygen levels would need to be controlled. Existing fish in the ponds would need to be killed off or removed. Once any salmon raised there got old enough to smolt and run downstream, they would need a safe connection to the Grand River.

That's something, he said, that currently doesn't exist.

Strek said teaching children how to fish has become part of his group's mission. The club started a Small Fry Fishing Contest this past year to promote the introduction of youth to fishing.

It also has long supported the "Salmon in School" program, which exposes children to the life cycle of salmon by having them study fish development in an aquarium, from eggs to hatchlings and eventually to young releasable fish that are set free in area streams. The group created a nonprofit foundation a year and half ago, called the Grand Rapids Steelheaders Foundation, for the purpose of funding the group's educational and charitable programs. Sabine said the Steelheader's teaching mission fits well with his plans for Millennium Park.

"We have a five-year agreement with the group," Sabine said. "Our objective was to partner with a group that had a good mission and was interested in helping Kent County Parks. Theirs is educating kids and improving the fishing and fishery.

"It's a good fit with what we do."

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