LEWISTOWN, Ill. (WMBD) — The Alligator Gar, an Illinois-native prehistoric fish that swam during the time of dinosaurs, is being released back into Illinois waters Thursday.
The reasons for reintroducing the Alligator Gar are twofold: bringing back an extirpated species to Illinois waters is one goal. In addition, the Alligator Gar is becoming a popular trophy quarry for anglers to bow fishers in the southern part of their range.
“We’re going to weigh and measure these fish,” said Biologist Rob Hilsabeck with IDNR District Fisheries. “Tag these fish, and they’ll be introduced here into the Emiquon Preserve, and we’ll be able to study them and see how they do in the future.”
The Alligator Gar is the largest fish in the Mississippi River Valley, growing up to 10-feet-long. During the past several decades, the fish endured great challenges like over-fishing, habitat loss, and degradation. Until recently, it was last seen in 1966 in the Cache River.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) and The Nature Conservancy in Illinois (TNC) at TNC’s Emiquon Preserve of Thompson and Flag Lakes led the recovery project that made this possible.
TNC Director of River Conservation Doug Blodgett said they are thrilled to put the fish back into Illinois waters.
“Emiquon is one of the largest floodplain restoration projects in the Midwest, and one of 40 designated Wetlands of International Importance in the U.S.,” Blodgett said. “By bringing these native fish here, we’re re-establishing an extirpated ancient fish species and further restoring the health and ecological balance of Illinois waters.”
45 Alligator Gar were hatched in Mississippi and reared in a hatchery in Illinois. Before they were released, IDNR Biologist Rob Hilsabeck said they served a critical role in another freshwater conservation project.
“We have a chance to start restocking a fish that was here back when the dinosaurs…actually before the dinosaurs…that’s outlived the dinosaurs…and can be a really important part a balanced fishery, a balanced ecosystem at Emiquon,” said Blodgett. “We’re pleased that we’re having this opportunity here to restore what was an integral part of the fishery at places like Emiquon along the Illinois River.”
“These Alligator Gar were used to grow the endangered Yellow Sandshell mussels earlier this year,” Hilsabeck said. “The larvae of mussels require a host to develop into juvenile mussels, in this case attaching themselves to the gar’s gills until they’re mature enough to fall off and begin reproducing on their own. These fish are an integral part of this mussel’s conservation effort.”
There are three other species of Gar in Illinois currently, specifically the Spotted, Shortnose and Longnose species.
From 2010 to 2019, 9,195 Alligator Gar have been stocked in 10 bodies of water in the state. These young-of-the-year fish are obtained from the United States Fish and Wildlife (USFWS) service through their Pvt. John Allen Hatchery in Tupelo, Mississippi. The hatchery personnel at Pvt. John Allen collected brood fish each spring from the lower Mississippi River for this propagation. The USFWS has partnered with 1 states in the historic range of the Alligator Gar for their management and reintroduction.