A Successful 2019 Field Season

IRBS technicians holding largemouth bass
IRBS technicians (left to right: Taylor Bookout, Christian Daniels, and Spencer Phillips) holding Largemouth Bass from the upper Illinois River (Photo by Andrya Whitten).

2019 Field Season Completed!

The staff of the Illinois River Biological Station wrapped up a successful 2019 field season at the end of October. This year we completed annual fish and water quality sampling on over five projects covering areas along the entire length of the Illinois River and select pools of the Upper Mississippi River. We employed and trained 16 field technicians on all projects and gained two new Aquatic Ecologists who work on the Asian Carp removal project on the Upper Mississippi River. Many staff members also attended and presented at conferences and participated at workshops during the field season such as the National American Fisheries Society conference in Reno, NV, the Organization of Biological Field Stations conference in Brussels, Belgium, and the International Society for River Science conference in Vienna, Austria.

Staff member holding a Paddlefish
IRBS staff member, Andrya Whitten, holding a juvenile paddlefish sampled in the lower Illinois River.

This field season, with the continual high water on both rivers, brought challenges in accessing and sampling portions of the river at times. However, we sampled some fish that we do not see often such as an american eel (Anguilla rostrata), paddlefish (Polyodon spathula), blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus), hybrid striped bass (Morone chrysops x Morone saxatilis), trout-perch (Percopsis omiscomaycus), and blue sucker (Cycleptus elongatus). Check out our Facebook page for more field season photos!

May & June 2019 Flooding on the Illinois River

IRBS staff members behind flood wall
Andrya Whitten, Amber Blackert, Jim Lamer, Kris Maxon, Brandon Harris, Levi Solomon, McKayla Susen, Kara Phelps, Jason DeBoer, Jesse Williams, and Matt Altenritter

IRBS staff members filled sand bags and assembled a muscle wall to prevent the station from being flooded with a predicted crest on the Illinois River in Havana at ~26.5 ft.

Director Jim Lamer and ecologists Jason DeBoer and Levi Solomon talked with reporter Matt Sheehan from WMBD out of Peoria, Illinois about some of the beneficial effects that floods can have on fish, and also the difficulty of working on and around the river when it’s flooded.

Watch the video here ->

INHS rivers research team receives Outstanding Public Servant Award

researcher holding fish
Aquatic ecologist Dr. John Chick holds a buffalo.

The INHS rivers research team has received the Prairie Rivers Network Outstanding Public Servant Award for its long-term contributions to our understanding of Illinois rivers.

INHS research on rivers dates back to 1894, when the University of Illinois opened what is now the Forbes Biological Station in Havana, Illinois and selected INHS director Stephen Forbes to oversee it. Under Forbes’ direction, the station became the first biological station in the world to focus on studying rivers.

INHS opened two more river field stations in the early 1990s—the Illinois River Biological Station in Havana and the Great Rivers Field Station in Alton. Researchers from these stations together with INHS researchers housed on the U of I campus continue to grow and strengthen the INHS river research program.

On behalf of the INHS Rivers Team, we thank the Prairie Rivers Network for this honor!

Read more here.

Carp play a role in disseminating plant seeds in the Illinois River

researcher holds fish
Mason Deja, INHS seasonal technician, holds a common carp from the Illinois River.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — As common carp forage in Illinois River sediment, they eat and scatter seeds of both beneficial plants and invasive species. A new IRBS and Forbes Biological Station study indicates that the particular seeds that carp consume and the distance at which they shed them could potentially alter the river ecosystem.

To find out more, read this article by the Prairie Research Institute.

Illinois sportfish recovery a result of 1972 Clean Water Act, scientists report

Illinois River
Researchers from the Illinois Natural History Survey have surveyed fish in the Illinois River since 1957. Here, the team uses electricity to stun the fish for capture. Photo by Aaron Yetter.

Turning the tables: application of commercial fishing helps fight the spread of Asian carp

Rivers help define Illinois both on our maps and in our minds. After decades of decline driven by pollution, the major rivers of Illinois—the Wabash, Ohio, Mississippi, and Illinois—started to improve after the Clean Water Act was enacted in 1972. Unfortunately, chemical pollution may be relatively controlled, but biological pollution, most recently with the arrival of Asian carp, has been skyrocketing. Since the 1970s, Asian carp populations have spread from the lower Mississippi River Valley up the Illinois River toward Lake Michigan. Silver and Bighead carp are the two species leaving the most concern in their wake.

These invasive fish don’t prey directly on many of the species we care about, so it is tempting to ignore the nuisance of flying schools of 30-pound Asian carp in our rivers. Think again. These invaders number in the millions, and each fish is a voracious eater of the microscopic plankton that sustains fish such as Largemouth Bass and Crappies, as well as endangered icons like the rock pocketbook or creek heelsplitter mussels. This means that Asian carp are a threat to Great Lakes fish, including the billion-dollar recreational and commercial industries. Because of this threat, agencies from the Great Lakes states and Canada have seen the population trends and are extremely concerned.

In an effort to prevent the spread of Asian carp into the Great Lakes while protecting all the gains we have made in our big rivers, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) is using federal funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative to help Illinois’ commercial fishermen suppress the exploding invasive carp population. The project has been ramping up since 2010 and involves multiple federal agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as students and researchers from many Illinois universities, including the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) and the University of Illinois (U of I). The project covers more than 90 kilometers of the river between the Brandon Road Lock and Dam in Joliet and the Interstate 39 Bridge downstream of Starved Rock State Park. It is a complex undertaking involving the newest technology in bubble, sound, and electric barriers and fish-counting sonar, coupled with centuries-old stalwarts such as gill nets. There have even been consultations with Chinese fisherman from the Yangtze River Valley, where these carp have been fished for centuries, on how to use multiple boat teams to conduct a thousand ton fish drive, like cowboys in the old west.

Using all these approaches, Illinois fishermen are becoming more adept at harvesting fish, with some recent state totals of up to 10,000 pounds. The big question, however, is whether these efforts are working. Does harvesting fish to suppress the Asian carp benefit our rivers? Early work from 2000 to 2010 showed a tremendous drop in zooplankton populations with planktivorous fish becoming malnourished over time. One key example is the Gizzard shad, an important forage fish for the recreational species Bass and Crappie. However, since 2010, improvements in zooplankton have occurred where harvest is very high (>8000 kilograms per month). Subsequently, an INHS team in Yorkville has shown that the health and condition of Gizzard shad have bounced back in areas where Asian carp numbers have declined the fastest.

Despite these successes, the threat from Asian carp is still great. Harvest works only as long as we keep the pressure on. INHS, the U of I, and the IDNR are collaborating to evaluate various physical barriers that complement harvesting; electric barriers, carbon dioxide bubble curtains, and hydrologic disconnection are just a few of the technologies being developed and evaluated to capitalize on the success of commercial harvests.

IRBS scientists train conservation police officers

Researchers Rich Pendleton, Levi Solomon, and Blake Bushman of the INHS Illinois River Biological Station are helping to educate the next group of Conservation Police Officers. The trio provided hands on training to Illinois Conservation Police Officer Cadets concerning fish sampling and identification with demonstrations on the Illinois River.