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The spiraling of Illinois’ fisheries division: Beyond a challenge

Scenes such as this--biologist Steve Pescitelli releasing northern pike fingerlings from the Jake Wolf Memorial Fish Hatchery into the North Shore Channel in May,, --.will not happen this year as pike and hybrid striped bass raising were stopped.
Credit: Dale Bowman

The fisheries division has taken a dive in Illinois.

It’s been years in the making, but the last couple years have reached a critical point.

From 1996-2002, the Jake Wolf Memorial Fish Hatchery averaged 70 million fish for stocking. By last year, it was down to 20 million.

In 2017, it will be down some 35 percent to 12 million. And the Illinois Department of Natural Resources is stopping (suspending) stocking of northern pike and hybrid striped bass.

That was some of the bad news delivered by fisheries chief Dan Stephenson during the IDNR presentation during the Illini Muskies Alliance meeting on Jan. 7 at the Muskie Expo Chicago at Pheasant Run in St. Charles.

For somebody like Stephenson, who came up through the ranks over the past four decades, this truly hurts.

“In the 1980s and early `90s, we had state of the art hatcheries,’’ he said afterward.

That’s not even remotely true any more. Now we’re talking about a state where a muskie club, the Fox River Valley chapter of Muskies Inc., stepped up and paid for the specialized food for young muskie at Jake Wolf.

Speaking of Jake Wolf, the physical plant itself, once truly state of the art, is deteriorating. More devastatingly, staffing has tanked.

Jake Wolf is down to seven; at its prime production, it had a couple dozen workers. By next January it will be down to three, as in 3, all the same meaning, not enough.

“We’re having a lot of trouble with manpower,’’ Stephenson said in one of the great understatements.

There was one hire in fisheries last year, clerical for commercial fisheries.

Stephenson points out that if you draw a line from Rockford to Carbondale, the 50 counties on the west have four biologists and two fish techs.

Biologist Frank Jakubicek has been covering Lake and Cook Counties for many years. With about 6 million people, he has roughly half the state’s population in his work space. That’s absurd. A lot of what fisheries biologists do has more to do with humans than it does with fish.

“It’s pretty bleak,’’ Stephenson said.

Bleak? Try staffing of 18 for the three hatcheries: Jake Wolf, LaSalle and Little Grassy. There should be 38. There’s 12 district fisheries biologists, once 23. Fisheries peaked at 146 people, there’s now 69, 72 percent of whom are 48 or older.

And I don’t have a lot of hope.

We have Gov. Bruce Rauner, halfway to going down as Illinois’ most ineffective governor. Too many legislators are unaware of the IDNR’s importance. Too many fishermen are better at demonzing House speaker Michael Madigan than they are at knowing their state rep or state senator, let alone having ever communicated with them.

That bugs me the most. That could be corrected.

But I don’t see fishermen or outdoors people in general getting riled enough to do anything on the legislative level, even as simple as contacting and putting pressure on their state legislators.

As if that is not enough, the state’s bean counters have yet to figure out the impact the passage of the Lockbox constitutional amendment in November on the IDNR. It could cause the loss of some $30 million to the IDNR. The Lockbox Amendment had nearly 80 percent approval from voters in Illinois.

There are times when I think I should just go fishing and say, “The hell with it.’’