Fish Success Story is No Tall Tale

Two nesting cavities, which mimic the natural habitat of channel catfish, are added to the Little Calumet River on May 14, 2015

The report by the MWRD and the Shedd Aquarium shows that fish populations and species have gradually increased over the past 30 years, while invasive species have declined. Since 1974, the number of fish species increased from 10 to 77, with 60 species counted since 2000. MWRD and the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan have made a significant impact for local fish. 

Friends is particularly proud of the role we've played in the increase in species and overall abundance of fish through our clean water advocacy efforts and on the ground improvements. In addition to our ongoing landscape restoration efforts in Chicago and the suburbs, north and south, which have a dramatic impact on water quality.

The following timeline lays out some of Friends' fish related accomplishments. 

  • In 1993, Friends and the National Park Service launched the Chicago Rivers Demonstration Project. This innovative project was a collaboration with the MWRD, Urban Resource Partnership, U.S Army Corps of Engineers, USDA Forest Service, and U.S Fish & Wildlife Service to enhance Chicago area rivers through community-based activities while serving as a national model for improving degraded waterways. Resulting publications included Nature and the River, People and the River, and a survey of resident use and perception of the river. The collaboration identified river enhancement projects, many of which have been completed. 
  • In 2000 Friends, the Civic Federation and Openlands released Waterways for Our Future which helped trigger a five-year Use Attainability Analysis by Illinois EPA starting in 2002 to review whether or not the water quality standards governing the river system protected current or attainable recreational and aquatic life uses.* After eight years of negotiations and hearings before the Illinois Pollution Control Board (IPCB), in 2015 Friends and our Water Quality Task Force partners at Environment Law & Policy Center, Natural Resources Defense Council, Openlands, Prairie Rivers Network, and the Sierra Club, Illinois Chapter collaborated with MWRD and secured new standards that were higher than even Illinois EPA recommended. Those new standards are still in the implementation phase but include targets to increase dissolved oxygen and less chlorides and other pollutants which will benefit fish and other aquatic life.
  • In 2002, Friends and Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) launched our dam removal campaign which led to a statewide dam removal initiative by Governor Pat Quinn and the removal of the Winnetka Road and North Branch dams to date. A dam removal success story reported by WTTW chronicles a 30-mile trek of one largemouth bass.
  • In 2005 Friends pioneered the Chicago River Fish Hotel, a complete floating wetland structure attached to the seawall outside our McCormick Bridgehouse and Chicago River Museum and then downstream at Clark Street from 2009-2011. The Fish Hotel, which excitingly had trouble with muskrats and hatched its own Monarch butterflies, led to the development of the Jetty on the Chicago Riverwalk designed by Sasaki for the City of Chicago and paid for in part by Friends through a Chi-Cal Rivers Fund grant in 2014. 
  • The advent of the Chi-Cal Rivers Fund has played a considerable role in improving instream habitat and in 2013, to further demonstrate that it is possible to create fish habitat where it is lacking in an urbanized environment, Friends and IDNR were awarded one of the first Chi-Cal grants to invent and install 400 channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) nesting cavities into the North Shore Channel, North Branch, and the Little Calumet. Male channel catfish use cavities to guard their eggs. To jump start the system and reproductive process we released 277,000 juvenile channel catfish in the North Shore, downtown, and into the Little Calumet.
  • Starting in 2015 Friends and IDNR partnered to replicate the success of IDNR's instream planting efforts on the Fox River in the North Shore Channel where water conditions are similar. Utilizing the enthusiastic assistance of volunteers, 4,000 emergent native water willow (Justicia Americana) and lizard's tail (Saururus cernuus) were planted, an effort that continued into 2018 and 2019 in partnership with the Shedd Aquarium with whom we installed a total of 2,768 more plants.
  • In 2017 Friends received funds to reconnect Mill Creek to the Cal-Sag Channel. Mill Creek is a high quality stream in the Forest Preserves of Cook County near Palos Hills. Completed in 2019, the nearly quarter million dollar project removed limestone and concrete shelves which blocked passage from the Cal-Sag into the creek and adds naturalistic rock and pool formations that enable fish to swim upstream. Due to the lack of connection, despite being excellent habitat only five fish species were found in the two-and-a-half-mile creek. Seven new species almost immediately colonized the creek post construction.

This history of action and advocacy has set the stage for more innovative efforts to improve the health of the river such as Urban Rivers' Wild Mile, and the report speaks for the impact of everyone's work.

"It's very gratifying to see the validation of all of our collective efforts but it doesn't mean our job is done," said Margaret Frisbie, Friends' executive director, "As we continue to advocate for improvements in water quality and the creation of a habitat rich blue-green corridor we look forward to seeing even greater improvement; something that can't be done without our partners, members, and supporters."

*In 2011 Friends and our Water Quality Task Force partners also secured an upgrade to the recreational use standard that included sewage treatment plant disinfection and protection for swimming in most reaches. Disinfection has been implemented but enforcing the new swimming standards have been largely ignored at all levels of government.