Fisheries eager for funds to swim in

Springfield — The future is looking brighter for DNR on the heels of last fall’s passage of the Sustainability Bill, but the department is not out of the woods yet.

“Things look a lot better than they did a year ago,” said DNR assistant fisheries chief Dan Stephenson.

But six of the state’s 22 district fisheries biologist positions are still vacant, and there is a long list of equipment that is aging and needs replacement, putting a strain on the DNR’s annual fish sampling and surveying efforts.

And the estimated $1.8 million from the Sustainability Bill is not expected to start trickling in until fall or winter, Stephenson said.

Stephenson, who was recently promoted to his position after years of handling several districts and acting as a regional fisheries biologist, now expects to continue to help with the surveys this fall, since his position has yet to be filled.

“Hopefully, we’ll have that person in place and I can help train him,” said Stephenson.

DNR has had difficulty maintaining its boat and surveying equipment in recent years, in the face of the state’s budget crisis.

Stephenson’s boat, for example, is a 1990 model and his boat motor is a 1997 model.

“A few guys have gotten some new stuff over the years,” he said, noting that while no new boats have been purchased, a half dozen new motors have been bought for the department.

Also on the upside, some new generators used to power electrofishing boats, which are used to survey fish populations, were recently purchased.

DNR is now under a new arrangement concerning its state-issued automobiles, which are now being issued through the state’s Central Management Services. Stephenson said three new field vehicles and a hatchery truck are on the way this year.

But the department is still using a dozen vehicles with more than 200,000 miles and 20 vehicles with more than 150,000 miles.

“We have put in for a whole bunch of new equipment this year, and that will hopefully help,” Stephenson said. “We have a backlog of several thousand dollars that we hope to catch up on.”

Money from the Sustainability Bill, which shifted 20 percent of vehicle titles to the newly established Illinois Fisheries Management Fund, will be used to hire a couple of fisheries biologists and hatchery technicians, Stephenson said.

So with the department understaffed, is the effort to control Asian carp coming at the expense of the state’s fisheries survey efforts?

DNR has been rotating district fisheries biologists into temporary shifts up to Morris, where there has been a considerable effort to net Asian carp and thin the population.

But Stephenson said those shifts are voluntary, and district fisheries biologists only come when it works into their schedule.

“They don’t go if they have other things they need to do in their district,” Stephenson said. “It’s all volunteer, based on when our biologists have time in their schedules.”

Biologists helping efforts to stop Asian carp have their salaries paid for by a separate pot of money from the federally funded Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

The number of man hours that district biologists are spending in Chicago has decelined since a separate crew was hired to do the majority of that work, Stephenson said.

Another reason for optimism is a soon-to-be-implemented restructuring of the DNR, though Stephenson declined to detail those changes until they have been first shared with DNR employees this mont.

“It sets the stage for the next 20 years,” Stephenson said.

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