A good 2018 for Dan Stephenson, chief of fisheries for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, would be a growing population of alligator gar and fisheries biologists and a halt to the spread of Asian carp.
The alligator gar stocking program began in 2009 and has been mired in unwarranted controversy at times. The fish can grow to more than six feet in length and weigh well over 125 pounds.
The alligator gar is indigenous to Illinois, although the state is on the northern edge of the gar’s natural range. Loss of habitat all but extirpated the fish. Since 2009 fry have been stocked in the Kaskaskia and Big Muddy rivers as well as selective lakes.
Because the amount of habitat remains limited, Stephenson isn’t sure the restocking program will prove to be a success. However, quite a different story was making the rounds a couple years ago.
“About a year and a half ago, an AP writer wrote that we were bringing them back to eat the Asian car,” Stephenson said. “It makes a wonderful story, but it’s not true. But, boy did it have legs. Last year I did about 25 interviews, once the story is out, it’s hard to pull it back. And, no they won’t eat all the sport fish.
“We don’t know it’s going to happen. It takes 11 years for a female to become sexually mature. We have to get them numerous enough that the male can find a female and they can find the right habitat.”
Alligator gar move a lot. Stephenson said two fish were recovered in Illinois in the past year that had been released in Kentucky.
While trying to re-introduce the alligator gar, biologists will be attempting to slow the spread of Asian carp. The invasive species has found its way into all Illinois river systems and many lakes. So far, the IDNR has been successful in keeping the fish out of Lake Michigan.
“There is no silver bullet,” Stephenson said. “We are concentrating on two areas, working hard at the northern end of the Illinois River, trying to hit their numbers back. The leading edge hasn’t moved in 25 years. We think we’ll be successful keeping them out of Lake Michigan. We’ve taken 1 million pounds out the last six years through our commercial fishermen that we hire.”
Currently most of the fish taken through commercial fishing are made into liquid fertilizer. The state hires the commercial fishermen with money obtained from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
As another way of controlling the spread of the Asian carp, the state is working on developing a human market for the fish.
“There is a lot of protein out there that is going to waste,” Stephenson said. “I don’t know how many pounds go to human food, but it’s not much at all. Some go to dog and cat food, but we just really don’t have any markets developed.”
He noted some of the fish, which he described as being firm and mild, is being served in dormitory cafeterias at the University of Illinois.
In the meantime, with the State of Illinois finally having a budget, Stephenson is hoping to fill openings created by a number of retirements. In the past year two Region V biologists, Mike Hooe and Chris Bickers, retired.
“I’m more positive now than I was a year ago,” he said. “I’ve got 3-4 people rehired. We’ve already posted several jobs. In Region V there are eight positions that are going to be filled and 20-30 more positions in the queue.”