Myth: The Chicago River Is Too Dirty for Fish

Contrary to what many believe, the Chicago River is home to a diverse collection of nearly 70 species of fish, according to the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District.

This increase from about 10 species in the 1970s can be attributed to the improving water quality in the Chicago River. Accordingly, the Chicago River has become a hub for freshwater recreational fishing.

In 2006, the Chicago Park District launched the annual Mayor Daley’s Chicago River Fishing Festival, which has increased in popularity with each year. Additionally, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources hosts Urban Fishing Clinics throughout the state.

Fish and the Chicago River

The Chicago River was once a shallow marshy corridor that meandered through a savannah-dominated landscape, an ideal habitat for fish. Fish like to spawn, mate, and mature in shallow, rocky areas of natural streams.

Expanding human population and increased commercial use of the waterway resulted in extensive alterations to the original Chicago River.

The main stem of the Chicago River is now a deep, straight channel that lacks the types of natural areas that allow fish to thrive. The river also has dams and other barriers and water level fluctuations that occur during heavy rains. In addition, industrial and surface pollution have been dumped into the River over the years. The combination of straight walls, dams, water level changes, and pollution have historically made the river less hospitable for fish than it would otherwise be.

The Solution

Restoration of habitat, especially through the use of in-stream structures, has become common practice in urban rivers.

In their study, Schwartz and Herricks evaluated a habitat improvement along a stretch of the North Branch of the Chicago River and demonstrated that abundance, biomass, and diversity of fishes were greater after restoration.

In another significant project Friends of the Chicago River, together with WRD Environmental, installed the first-ever Michigan Avenue Fish Hotel in the heart of downtown Chicago in 2005. The Fish Hotel is one way to help restore the Chicago River into a vibrant ecosystem by providing fish with constructed habitat otherwise absent from the Main Stem of the Chicago River. The Fish Hotel is a floating island that offers native aquatic plants that provide natural food and shelter for fish, as well as deeper fish cribs where bigger fish can rest.

Take a walk down the Chicago Riverwalk between State Street and Dearborn Street and take a look for yourself! The Fish Hotel will open for the season in May. Peek over the edge and you might see a shimmering green sunfish, baby bluegills, carp, and sometimes even Lake Michigan fish like trout and salmon that find their way in.

What You Can Do

While fishing continues to rise in popularity in the region, it is important to note that the Illinois Department of Public Health has issued advisories against dining too frequently on some species of fish found in the Chicago River. If a choice is made to eat fish caught in the river, the Illinois-Indiana Sea-Grant provides preparation guidelines to minimize the associated risks.

Learn more about how your actions affect the Chicago River by visiting the McCormick Bridgehouse & Chicago River Museum. The museum is located in the southwest bridge tower at Wacker Drive and Michigan Avenue and is easily accessed via the Riverwalk. It will open for the season in May.

According to Windy City Fishing, fishing is enjoyable all along the Chicago River. However, the best spots seem to be: the North Shore Channel, the North Branch from Foster to downtown, as well as downtown, in some parts of the South Branch, and the confluence of the North Branch and North Shore Channel at Foster Ave.

Not interested in fishing? The Chicago River offers other recreational pursuits for both the active and passive river lover. For a new vantage point, participate in a guided canoe trip along the river. Trips are offered by a number of organizations including Friends of the Chicago River and the Chicago Park District.

Cyclists can enjoy a number of bike trails along many sections of the river.

Finally, lend a hand to foster the continued vitality of the Chicago River by signing up to join thousands of others for hands-on environmental work in the Chicago River Day held each year in early May.

Written by Dana Murphy, Friends of the Chicago River