Some pushback to gar reintroduction along river

By Anthony Candia
Contributing Writer

New Athens, Ill. —  Although it seemed out of place given the ongoing state budget issues, the General Assembly’s unanimous vote in May to pass a resolution lauding the alligator gar did have purpose.

The resolution was put together by the Illinois Environmental Club, the Sierra Club and the Environmental Law and Policy Center – each groups that want to see the pre-historic fish thrive again in Illinois waters.

But not everybody is convinced putting support behind the creature is a great idea. At least one sportsmen’s club along the Kaskaskia River is taking issue with DNR’s program.

The Kaskaskia Mariners Association, a boat club based out of New Athens, publicly questioned DNR about the alligator gar program.

A meeting called by the club was scheduled for July 21, and DNR officials were expected to participate. Boat club members – many who fish and recreate on the Kaskaskia – were hopeful the meeting would provide some answers about the  alligator gar.

Some suspect the fish is targeted for use as a “special weapon” against the invasive Asian carp.

Others point to the growing popularity of bowfishing – a sport that counts gars as a top quarry.

Some just think DNR and  conservation groups want to revive a species of fish that once called Illinois home – southern Illinois, that is.

Whatever the reason, DNR began an alligator gar reintroduction program in 2010. Alligator gar were stocked in a few waterways, including the lower Kaskaskia River.

“We only stocked a few thousand in total at those sites and many of those were small, so survivability was questionable,” said Dan Stephenson, DNR’s chief of fisheries.

The program took a brief hiatus the past year or so, but it is once again becoming active with more research backing up the stocking initiative to help ensure success of survivability.

“We now raise the fish to at least 12 inches before stocking so that their survival is vastly improved,” said Stephenson, who cautioned that more research still needs to be done to evaluate the survivability of the fish.

One thing DNR has learned is that female gar do not become sexually mature until the age of 11, and even then they may not necessarily spawn every year.

According to DNR, the reasons for reintroducing the alligator gar are twofold. The top goal is to bring back an extirpated species.

The second reason is to attract sportsmen.

“Bowfishing enthusiasts in particular enjoy pursuing the huge fish,” DNR noted.

Alligator gar are one of four species of gar found in Illinois. Spotted, shortnose and longnose agar are the other three.

Alligator gar were not traditionally found in large numbers in Illinois, and though they do grow quickly, it is still unclear if the program will succeed.

“We will monitor this program closely and will implement creel and size limits if necessary as this population becomes established,” said Stephenson.

The gar being stocked come from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hatchery in Mississippi.

One of the major hopes for the reintroduction is to establish a trophy fishery in the state that has been absent for decades.

The Illinois Environmental Council is one group that has floated the notion that alligator gars will help control the Asian carp population.

However, skeptics agree that the toothy fish won’t make much of a dent in the carp population.

“They will eat them, but there are tons of them,” said Stephenson. “From Peoria downstream in Illinois, and really the southern part of the state, there are tons of Asian carp per river mile. There is no way a handful of these alligator gar can control them. They won’t be a controlling factor. They will eat them if they get the opportunity.”

As for the resolution that passed the state House and Senate in May, it urged DNR to step up a program to reintroduce the alligator gar to Illinois waters, including the Kaskaskia River.

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