Brad Dokken column: Improved water quality in Rainy River a welcome turn of events

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It hasn’t always been so.

As John Myers of the Duluth News Tribune, also a Forum Communications newspaper, reported, the MPCA report signals “a return from the depths of choking paper mill and sewage pollution 50 years ago.”

Based on the MPCA’s report, tests for sediment, oxygen levels, fish and insect populations conducted along the Rainy’s 86-mile length in 2016-17 “consistently met standards in all the locations we monitored,’’ Jesse Anderson, research scientist for the MPCA, said in Myers’ story.

I remember the first time I fished the Rainy River, which forms the Minnesota-Ontario border from Rainy Lake downstream to Lake of the Woods, in April 1987.

The river had a distinct odor as you approached the water.

The fishing was spectacular, and a buddy and I lost count of how many walleyes we caught in two days while camping at Franz Jevne State Park near Birchdale, Minn., as pretty of a spot for my money as any you’ll find in northern Minnesota outside the Arrowhead or Boundary Waters.

We kept a few walleyes for the frying pan, and every fillet had the same smell as the water. For lack of a better description, the fish tasted like aluminum foil baked in mud.

Downright nasty, in other words.

I didn’t know it then, but the water quality along the Rainy River already was improving by the time we first probed its depths that memorable weekend in 1987. The water didn’t smell very good and the walleyes tasted like mud, but as recently as 1970, Myers reported, the Rainy wasn’t fit for swimming or fish, the result of paper mills in International Falls, Minn., and across the river in Fort Frances, Ont., dumping their untreated mill waste directly into the river.

I remember hearing stories of locals encountering pods of waste floating up to the surface and releasing foul orders when they popped.

As Myers reported: “Chunks of fibrous debris fouled fishing lines and waste material covered spawning beds and used up the oxygen fish and small aquatic creatures needed to survive.”

I’ve fished the Rainy River numerous times since that inaugural trip and have never encountered walleyes that tasted like the fish we caught in April 1987. As the MPCA indicated in Myers’ story, researchers during the 2016-17 study found 42 species of fish and minnows in the Rainy, including species sensitive to pollution.

The result? An “excellent” rating for fish, ranking “among the best in Minnesota.”

The report attributes the turnaround to strict clean water regulations in both the U.S. and Canada and the pristine condition of much of the surrounding watershed, which includes Voyageurs National Park, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and Quetico Provincial Park.

Perhaps the most striking example of the Rainy’s improved water quality is the rebound in lake sturgeon, which spawn in the river and its tributaries. Once all but gone from the river, sturgeon now have recovered to the point where they’ve met short-term recovery goals set forth by fisheries managers in both Minnesota and Ontario.

As I reported in 2012, those goals called for male sturgeon up to age 30 and females to age 50, with fish larger than 70 inches present and 30 year-classes – fish from a given year’s hatch – in the population.

I can remember when somebody catching a 50-inch sturgeon on the Rainy River was a big deal; I even wrote stories about such catches.

Today, catching a 50-inch sturgeon warrants barely a blink, and massive sturgeon measuring 70 inches or more are reported regularly.

The sturgeon rebound is a direct result of improved water quality and the resulting improvement in spawning habitat, Ontario fisheries biologist Tom Mosindy told me at the time I wrote the story about achieving the short-term sturgeon recovery goals.

“As soon as water quality improvements occurred, the sturgeon responded to them overnight, and we started seeing regular successful reproduction and spawning,” Mosindy said. “And the population has continued to do that all the way through.”

The Rainy River Basin isn’t without its problems, including aquatic invasive species such as spiny water fleas and zebra mussels, not to mention phosphorus levels that trigger summer algae blooms downstream in Lake of the Woods, but the conditions are light years better than they were 50 years ago.

That’s a welcome development indeed.

The full report is available on the MPCA website at https://www.pca.state.mn.us/water/rainy-river-recovering.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Call him at (701) 780-1148, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1148 or send email to bdokken@gfherald.com.

Brad Dokken

Brad Dokken




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