A massive fish with a gator-like snout full of sharp teeth will again roam Illinois waterways if state lawmakers get their wish.
The state House and Senate have passed a resolution urging the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to get busy on a program to reintroduce the alligator gar to Illinois waters, including the Kaskaskia River.
The alligator gar sports a fearsome look, and can reach a length of 8 feet and a weight of 300-plus pounds.
Why would we want a fish like that in our lakes and rivers? For one, proponents think the alligator could help in the fight against Asian carp, an invasive species that has caused problems in waterways across the state.
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“The more we learn about alligator gar, the more intrigued we are that they could be help in the fight against Asian carp, drive revenue as a target of anglers, and become a popular niche food fish,” said Jennifer Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council.
Supporters also argue that the alligator gar is becoming a popular trophy quarry for sportsmen, particularly in the southern states where there are sustained populations of the species. Bowfishing enthusiasts in particular enjoy pursuing the huge fish.
A metro-east lawmaker, Rep. Jerry Costello II, D-Smithton, was a co-sponsor of the resolution. Costello often has a hand in legislation involving fishing and hunting. The House passed the measure 144-0, while the Senate approved it 57-0.
The alligator gar is the largest fish native to Illinois. It is a prehistoric species that has not been seen in the state since the last documented alligator gar catch occurred in the Cache River cutoff channel in southern Illinois in 1966. It was officially declared extinct in Illinois in the 1990s.
The IDNR began an alligator gar reintroduction program in 2010, but it has been on hold for the past two years. Alligator gar were stocked at a few waterways, including the lower Kaskaskia River, during the couple of years that the reintroduction program was active.
“We’ve only stocked a few thousand in total at those sites and many of those were small, so survivability was questionable,” said Dan Stephenson, the IDNR’s director of fisheries. “We now raise them to at least 12 inches before stocking so that their survival is vastly improved.”
Stephenson said the agency hopes to resume the program by stocking alligator gar in waterways that are “deemed conducive to their development,” including the Kaskaskia again.
“We have not agreed upon this year’s sites but they will be in or near the Illinois and Kaskaskia Rivers, their native home range,” he said.
Stephenson said it might take a long time to establish a population of big alligator gar.
“The females are not sexually mature until at least age 11, and even at that they do not necessarily reproduce every year, so establishing a native population again in Illinois will be a challenge,” he said.
The females are not sexually mature until at least age 11, and even at that they do not necessarily reproduce every year, so establishing a native population again in Illinois will be a challenge.
Dan Stephenson, IDNR director of fisheries
Some sport fishermen in the past have worried about gar hurting popular sportfish species such as bass and crappie. In the past there have been wide efforts to eradicate alligator gar, and for a while, some states even made it a crime to put a caught gar back into the water. But biologists say the alligator gar is an opportunistic predator that mostly targets shad and rough fish, such as carp.