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In 1969, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) began stocking the lower 23 miles (37 km) of the river for steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss), Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) and Coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch). In 1975, Michigan constructed a fish ladder at the Berrien Springs Dam to enable the salmonids to run an additional 10 miles (16 km) upstream to the Buchanan Dam. In 1980 the MDNR, Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) and United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) signed the "The St. Joseph River Interstate Cooperative Salmonid Management Plan", which led to construction of fish ladders at the Buchanan, Niles, South Bend and Mishawaka dams. By 1992 the salmonid runs were extended to the Twin Branch Dam in Indiana, a distance of 63 miles (101 km) from Lake Michigan. This enabled the trout and salmon to spawn in coldwater tributaries such as McCoy Creek.
Twin Branch Dam in Mishawaka, IN
Although completion of fish ladders on the lowest five mainstem dams in 1992 allowed salmonine passage as far as Twin Branch Dam in Mishawaka, Indiana, 94% of the fish that pass are salmon and trout, as the ladders were not designed to permit passage of migrating native fish. Historically, the migrating native species included Lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens), Bass (smallmouth and largemouth), Redhorse (silver, golden, shorthead, river, and greater) (Moxostoma ssp.), Walleye (Sander vitreus), Lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush), Lake whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis), Northern pike (Esox lucius) and American pickerel (E. americanus vermiculatus). Every spring the Potawatomi and early settlers used spears, seines and dip nets to catch their annual supply of fish. The abundance of lake sturgeon made the area around Niles famous in the mid-to late-1800s. Fish up to 12 feet (3.7 m) long and 300 pounds (140 kg) were taken by anglers, and their roe was exported to Russia as caviar. Sturgeon used to migrate as far as Hillsdale County, Michigan, and Sturgeon Lake near Colon, Michigan still bears the name of this mighty fish. Now the spawning sturgeon rarely reach Niles, as they are impeded by the dam at Berrien Springs, reducing the length of the river used by them for spawning by 155 miles (249 km). Historically, ninety-seven species of fish were native to the St. Joseph River Basin.