Fisheries hooks a chunk of funding

Springfield — Help for DNR’s cash-strapped Division of Fisheries was included in the new legislation passed by the General Assembly.

Senate Bill 1566 does include changes and increases to some fishing license fees, as well as the creation of the Illinois Fisheries Management Fund, supplied by vehicle title fees, to provide a projected $1.8 million for the department.

If “Fisheries Management Fund” sounds like a familiar term, it’s because retired former fisheries chief Mike Conlin, who has been a vocal critic of the DNR in recent months, had been pushing for a similarly-named mechanism that would prevent revenue from fishing license sales and federal money, such as funds from the Sport Fish Restoration Program, from being diverted to other departments.

Reached after the bill passed in late November, Conlin said he is thankful that the bill passed, but that the language stopped well short of his proposal for a fisheries fund.

“I’m glad that it passed,” said Conlin. “There is mention of a Fisheries Management Fund in the bill, but it’s not exactly what we wanted.”

Conlin said he and his supporters, including J.R. Black of the Northern Illinois Anglers Association, gave up trying to get his proposal attached to the bill after a previous iteration of the Sustainability Bill failed earlier this year.

“We didn’t want to endanger passage of the bill in the veto session,” said Conlin, who hopes to have his proposal introduced in the next legislative session in January.

DNR Director Marc Miller has opposed Conlin’s idea, as it would prevent the DNR from using money generated by fisheries elsewhere. Phone calls to the DNR seeking comment regarding Conlin’s effort were not returned before press time.

Conlin said such measures are necessary, something he became convinced of after filing a Freedom of Information request to the DNR in April, seeking, essentially, documents showing expenditures and revenues for the fisheries department.

The DNR responded nearly three months later, and did not fully complete the request, writing “No documents were located,” in regards to annual expenditures of Wildlife and Fish Funds.

“That even makes the case much stronger that we have to have better accounting to know where these monies are being spent,” said Conlin. “Either their records are really bad or they are being less than forthright.

Either way, that’s not acceptable. There has to be accountability.”

Conlin declined to name any legislators he is hoping will back the proposal, which would give the head of the fisheries department control over its budget, preventing money from being diverted to other departments.

In the meantime, Conlin said he is hopeful that the Sustainability Bill will mean improvements for both the fish and wildlife departments.

But what exactly does the Sustainability Bill mean for Illinois anglers?

Recreational and commercial fishermen will see changes in the state’s license fees.

The 10-day non-resident recreational license, which currently costs $19.50, has been replaced with a $15 three-day license. That could push some visitors to opt for the $31 annual non-resident license.

The cost of the state’s 24-hour license is being doubled to $10, and will no longer exempt the holder from the salmon or trout stamp requirement. Those stamps cost $6.

Commercial fishing licenses will rise from $35 to $60 for residents, and $150 to $300 for non-residents, while all commercial fishermen will also be required to have a recreational fishing license.

The DNR is projecting those changes will generate roughly $300,000 in new revenue, which will be used to purchase channel catfish for the Chicago lagoons and the downstate summer fishing clinics. They had been cut from this year’s budget because of the budget shortfall.

In addition, the money will allow the DNR to increase the numbers of hybrid sunfish purchased for those programs (they had been cut by 30 percent over the last three years), and hire a coordinator in northeast Illinois and Chicago to increase fishing clinics and educational programs in school classrooms.

The bigger chunk of money (an estimated $1.5 million) coming to the fisheries department via the Sustainability Bill is from revenue from fees paid for vehicle titles.

While 80 percent of that money will be heading to the Park and Conservation Fund, 20 percent will go to the Illinois Fisheries Management Fund.

That is going to allow the DNR to fill vacant positions at the state’s fish hatcheries, cover hatchery expenses for equipment repairs and replacement, increase numbers of rainbow trout, channel catfish, smallmouth bass, and increase public access with new fishing and canoeing opportunities.

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