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An estimated 3 million ducks, geese, swans, and coots migrate annually through this region.

Has one of the highest diversities of wildlife and fish in all of the Great Lakes.

More that 29 species of waterfowl and 65 kinds of fish make their home in the Detroit River.

Generates millions of dollars in recreational sales for waterfowl hunting, fishing, bird watching and more.

Supports an internationally renowned sport fishery.

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Read Detroit River research published in the Journal of Great Lakes Research.

Contact a Detroit River expert.

Great Lakes Science & Policy

Conserving Detroit River Habitats


The Detroit River is one of North America’s great rivers in the heart of the Great Lakes Basin. It connects the Upper Great Lakes to the Lower Great Lakes. It also links Canadians and Americans through an inseparable border. The Detroit River is an invaluable, multifaceted resource that serves as the foundation of our economies, provides numerous recreational opportunities and ecological values, and enhances “quality of life.”

The Detroit River Remedial Action Plan (RAP) notes that over 95% of the historical, coastal wetlands along the river have been lost to development. As a result, the RAP identified “loss of fish and wildlife habitat” as one of nine impaired uses. Therefore, it is urgent to protect the remaining coastal wetlands and other ecological features before they are lost to further development, and to rehabilitate degraded ones.


An Important Migration Corridor

The Detroit River is an important waterfowl migration corridor situated at the intersection of the Atlantic and Mississippi Flyways. An estimated three million ducks, geese, swans, and coots migrate annually through this region. In 1960, the international importance of this area was manifested in the U.S. Congressional designation of the 460-acre Wyandotte National Wildlife Refuge in the lower river. The Canada-United States North American Waterfowl Management Plan has identified the Detroit River as one of 34 Waterfowl Habitat Areas of Major Concern in the United States and Canada. Marshes along the Lower Detroit River and Northwest Ohio have been declared part of a Regional Shorebird Reserve by the Western Hemispheric Shorebird Reserve Network. In 1998, the Canada-U.S. State of the Lakes Ecosystem Conference identified the Detroit River-Lake St. Clair ecosystem as one of 20 Biodiversity Investment Areas in the Great Lakes Basin because it supports an exceptional biological diversity and requisite habitats.


Great Diversity

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources recognize the Detroit River as having one of the highest diversities of wildlife and fish in all of the Great Lakes. More that 29 species of waterfowl and 65 kinds of fish make their home in the Detroit River. The Detroit River is also a major migration corridor for hundreds of fish, butterfly, raptor, neo-tropical bird, and waterfowl species. The Detroit Audubon Society has documented over 300 species of birds in the Detroit-Windsor area. About 150 bird species nest near the river.


Economic & Recreational Benefits

The diversity of biota and habitats in the Lower Detroit River provides numerous benefits to the over 5 million people who live near it. The Lower Detroit River has an international reputation for duck hunting. In 1991, retail sales related to waterfowl hunting in Michigan were estimated at $20.1 million. During the same year, bird watching, photography, and other non-consumptive uses of waterfowl contributed an additional $192.8 million to Michigan’s economy.

Over 800,000 pleasure boats are registered in Michigan and about half of those are used on the Detroit River and Lake St. Clair, in part to fish for the estimated 10 million walleye that ascend the Detroit River each spring from Lake Erie to spawn. These walleye have helped create an internationally renowned sport fishery. It is estimated that walleye fishing alone brings in $1 million to the economy of communities along the lower Detroit River each spring.


Protection Needed

Despite increased awareness and science supporting their importance, habitats in the Lower Detroit River continue to be destroyed and degraded. There is a sense of urgency and a unique opportunity to protect the remaining high quality habitats before they are lost to further development and to rehabilitate and enhance degraded ones.

The Biodiversity Conservation Strategy for the Essex Region, developed by Essex Region Conservation Authority and its partners in Southwestern Ontario, and the U.S. Geological Survey-Great Lakes Science Center have inventoried significant ecosystem features. These efforts have provided the information needed to establish priorities to conserve and rehabilitate habitat. The scientific rationale for action now exists, however, any action must be guided by and remain true to a conservation vision.

Canada-United States agreement has been achieved on the following conservation vision:

In 10 years the Lower Detroit River Ecosystem will be an international conservation region where the health and diversity of wildlife and fish are sustained through protection of existing significant habitats and rehabilitation of degraded ones, and where the resulting ecological, recreational, economic, educational, and “quality of life” benefits are sustained for present and future generations.


Recent Actions

Examples of recent actions to conserve and rehabilitate Detroit River habitats include:

  • purchase of Stony Island with Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund dollars;
  • receiving Mud Island as a gift from National Steel Corporation and incorporating it into the Wyandotte National Wildlife Refuge;
  • securing resources through Water Resources Development Act for ecological restoration of Grassy Island;
  • demonstrating shoreline soft engineering techniques at Trenton street ends, the Solutia site located on the Trenton Channel, and at BASF Corporation; and
  • protecting coastal wetlands in Gibraltar Bay by Grosse Ile Nature and Land Conservancy.

Desired Actions

Examples of proposed projects that should be supported include:

  • obtaining resources through Section 206 of Water Resources Development for ecological restoration of Hennepin Marsh and Black Lagoon;
  • securing resources through the North American Wetlands Conservation Act to purchase Calf Island;
  • protecting Humbug Island and Marsh via the conservation easement defined by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers;
  • working with BASF Corporation on ecological restoration of Point Hennepin on Grosse Ile;
  • providing technical assistance to Wayne County Parks for soft engineering of the northern shoreline of Elizabeth Park along the Trenton Channel; and
  • securing Sugar Island for recreation and conservation purposes.

On December 21, 2001 President George Bush signed into law the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge Establishment Act, creating the first international wildlife refuge in North America. Efforts are now needed to establish Canada-U.S. goals and quantitative objectives for desired fish, wildlife, and habitats, and to coordinate management efforts and strategies.


Research Priorities

Research priorities include the following:

  • setting quantitative, scientifically-defensible biological and habitat objectives and targets;
  • undertanding the role of contaminants in rehabilitating and sustaining desired species;
  • elucidating the role of exotic species in food web dynamics; and
  • predicting and measuring the ecological response to habitat rehabilitation and contaminated sediment remediation actions (see more on contaminated sediment).


To learn more about the Detroit River, consider the following resources.