Hundreds of years ago, the Maumee River was a very different waterway from the wide, flat mocha-colored ribbon we see snaking its way across northwest Ohio toward Lake Erie. It was clear and clean back then, and pushing unencumbered through deciduous forests, swamps, and wet prairies.
Many fish thrived in that pristine environment, but as the region was settled and much of the former wilderness converted to farmland, the ecosystem changed. Some of the river species adapted and continued to flourish in the watershed, while others struggled to hang on.
Todd Crail from the University of Toledo’s department of environmental sciences said that when the streams feeding the Maumee system were channelized to enhance drainage for agricultural purposes, certain species of fish certainly suffered.
“Ohio historically was forested and cooler, with clear meandering streams,” Mr. Crail said. “But when you make straight lines out of rivers, they don’t process nutrients the same way, so the environment changes.”
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The building of dams along the Maumee system was another major impediment for some species. Noel Burkhead, a research fish biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said in a study published in the journal “BioScience” that most recent fish extinctions have been the result of human- induced changes to river systems, such as dams, channelization ,and pollution.
“As dams were built, the river changed and habitat was lost in a stairstep fashion,” Mr. Crail said.
While species such as the popeye shiner and the Western banded killifish disappeared from the warmer, straighter, and more turbid Maumee River but continued to live in other more accommodating environments, some such as the harelip sucker are no longer found in the Maumee, or anywhere else on the planet.
Mr. Burkhead stated that the harelip sucker, once found in seven states, vanished when its food source — snails that were very sensitive to any degradation of the water quality — could not survive in rivers of the late 19th century that were being harmed by soil runoff, sewage, and industrial pollutants.
Pollution and habitat loss are also believed to be key factors in the decline of the river population of sauger, according to Jeff Tyson, the Lake Erie program administrator for the Ohio Division of Wildlife. Sauger were once harvested by the millions on Lake Erie and present in the tributaries feeding the lake, but they essentially disappeared from the sport catch decades ago, and only an extremely rare rogue sauger would show up in the river.
Marc Kibbey, the associate curator of fishes at Ohio State’s Museum of Biological Diversity, said that the damage done to the river’s ecosystem by pollution and deforestation can, at least partially, be reversed. He said better treatment of sewage, reforestation efforts, reducing phosphorus pollution, and the overall improvement of water quality have demonstrated the resiliency of certain fish.
“Several of these improvements have resulted in dramatic increases in some fish species’ distributions across the state,” he said. “I don’t think it is overly optimistic to say we may see reoccupations by other species in Lake Erie watersheds like the Maumee.”