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Sport Fish Ecology Lab Research

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sportfisheries restoration

Our research projects in the Sport Fish Ecology Lab span a wide variety of species and systems investigating the relationships between sport fish population dynamics and human activities. We explore mechanisms that drive population dynamics and recruitment mechanisms in largemouth bass, a freshwater sport fish common in North America. We work on the reestablishment of smallmouth bass populations. We study lake trout natural reproduction. In addition, we also study bonefish and sharks in the eastern Carribbean, where we are interested in understanding how angling these species can affect their survival in the short term, and population demographics in the long term.

Research projects focusing on Illinois sport fish are primarily funded by Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Project F-69-R "Research and Analysis of Fisheries in Illinois."

Interested in learning more about F-69-R research? Download a PDF of Sport Fish Research in Illinois

Current Research Projects

Detection of Natural Reproduction of Lake Trout in Lake Michigan

LAT gill netting.jpgLake trout supported an important commercial and sport fishery in the Great Lakes until sea lamprey, overfishing and pollution decimated naturally reproducing populations. By the 1950s, the combination of these factors resulted in the extirpation of lake trout from Lake Michigan. For several decades, management agencies have been working to re-establish self-sustaining, naturally reproducing lake trout populations in Lake Michigan through sea lamprey control programs and hatchery stocking. Recent increases in the proportion of unmarked lake trout adults in fall spawning surveys has revealed the possibility that adults are successfully spawning on deep-water reefs in southern Lake Michigan and that steps are being made toward rehabilitation of lake trout in Lake Michigan. In particular, the proportion of wild to stocked lake trout captured at spawning sites in Illinois has approached 50% in recent years, suggesting that significant natural recruitment is occurring in southern Lake Michigan.

ROV_sized.jpgThe Sport Fish Ecology Lab (SFEL), in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, is currently assessing natural recruitment of lake trout at Julian’s Reef, a historical spawning site in southern Lake Michigan. Eggs are collected in traps during the fall spawn, and a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) equipped with eloectrofishing gear is deployed to collect lake trout fry in the spring. Together, the egg traps and ROV observations can identify if successful spawning occurs at Julian’s Reef, and if so, which microhabitat characteristics are preferred for egg deposition, which microhabitats provide the best conditions for recruitment, and what are that potential hurdles to recruitment, such as egg predation by invasive round gobies or the colonization of spawning sites by non-native Dreissenid mussels.

Results from this study can be used to inform lake trout management decisions, including future stocking sites, spawning site restoration goals, and the identification of additional spawning habitat in southern Lake Michigan.


Management of Ancient Sport Fish

Sarah_SFEL.jpgGars (Lepisosteidae) and bowfin (Amia calva) are among North America’s most primitive native fishes. Often thought of as “trash fish,” these species have had a bad rap for decades — thought to negatively impact more desirable sport fish through predation and competition. Research has shown, however, that these top predators play a very important role in maintaining balance and diversity throughout the ecosystem.

Bowfishing enthusiasts commonly target gars and bowfin, and even as the popularity of bowfishing in Illinois continues to grow, there are currently no bag limits or size regulations for these ancient sport fish in Illinois. Therefore, to manage ancient sport fish and provide a sustainable fishery, a basic understanding of population demographics (size and age structure, growth, mortality, etc.) is needed.

Beginning in 2015, the Sport Fish Ecology Lab began a statewide Gar and Bowfin Demographics Study, in which we are gathering valuable data regarding the age, growth, mortality, and body condition of these important top predators. By working with bowfishing clubs and anglers to collect data, as well as conducting standard fish sampling in partnership with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, we will evaluate the status of these populations and provide managers with the objective data needed to evaluate bowfishing impacts on Illinois ancient sport fish. Such data will allow managers to make informed decisions regarding the need (if any) for active management strategies, ensuring a sustainable and enjoyable fishery for years to come.


Impact of Stream Restoration on Movement of Smallmouth Bass in the West Branch of DuPage River

DuPage_crop.jpgUrban areas have experienced dramatic growth in recent years, resulting in major impacts on aquatic ecosystems. For this reason, large-scale stream restoration is taking place in many urbanized areas, which benefits these regions in numerous ways: increased wildlife conservation, flood prevention, and recreational usage. One such area is the West Branch of the DuPage, where we are working to determine the habitat use of smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolomieu) in a restored urban stream.

This project examines the movement of adult smallmouth bass within the restored reach. Small acoustic tags implanted into the bass are tracked using state-of-the-art acoustic transmitters and receivers. We are looking at determining the extent of movement, as well as which conditions which correlate to movement, such as seasons, temperature, flow conditions, etc.


Factors Affecting Recruitment in Smallmouth and Largemouth Bass

Nesting_Bass_Edit.jpgLargemouth and smallmouth bass are one of the most highly sought-after sport fish in North America. They also exhibit remarkable reproductive behaviors, including extended parental care. Male bass provide the sole parental care to the brood, a period that can last 2–4 weeks, depending on water temperature and fry growth. Males aggressively defend their sites, and in many populations nest defense can be critical as egg and fry predators can be abundant and predation pressure can be high. The reproductive ecology and parental care behaviors of largemouth and smallmouth bass make them especially vulnerable to angling during the reproductive period.

Our long-term research program studying largemouth and smallmouth bass reproduction has allowed us to investigate if recruitment is independent of reproductive success, or if there is a direct relationship. If these factors are indeed linked, insight into this relationship could greatly assist in the management of black bass, especially in these times of increasing ecological and economic pressures.

Watch this video explanation from Dr. Stein.


Evaluation and Restoration of Sport Fish Populations on the West Branch of the DuPage River

TaggedSmallmouthBass.jpg The DuPage County Forest Preserve District, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) and the Sport Fish Ecology Lab at the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) have teamed up on a research and monitoring project of sport fish populations on the West Branch of the DuPage River. A large-scale Superfund clean-up and stream bed reconstruction on the West Branch of the DuPage River was recently completed. This area is where our research team will monitor, investigate and assess the recovery of sport fish populations in a restored urban stream, highlighting the potential for a quality urban stream fishery in the Chicago suburbs.

Read more about the West Branch Project.

Influence of predator density on brood predation rates during a catch-and-release angling event

Bg_Predation_Stein.jpgThe impact of the removal of a nest-guarding male bass during a catch-and-release angling event on the survival of that male’s brood should be determined by three components: the length of time that elapses between removal of the parental male and first intrusion of a brood predator; the number of brood predators feeding on eggs; and the length of time the male is gone from the nest. All three factors combine to determine the total number of eggs consumed during the angling event. Brood loss is an important signal to a returning male bass that impacts the decision by the male to either continue to defend the remaining brood or abandon the nest entirely (Suski and Philipp 2004). This study proposes to examine how brood predator densities near the nest and male parental care behaviors influence when looking at these three factors.

Impacts of catch-and-release angling on large mouth bass recruitment

small mouth bassDuring a catch-and-release angling event, the brood of the angled male is exposed to increased risk of predation by nearby brood predators. A reduced number of eggs or larvae remaining in the nest may trigger abandonment by the parental male, eliminating any contribution to the year class by that male. Even if the male continues to defend a reduced brood, the maximum number of individuals that male may contribute to the upcoming year class may be reduced. Alternatively, compensatory mechanisms may allow surviving young to maintain year class strength. This study examines whether brood reductions across an entire population affects the size of the resulting year class.


Fishes of Champaign County

FOCC_field.jpgStreams and their aquatic communities are directly and indirectly influenced by the past and present activities of humans. Land-use changes in Champaign County over the past 100 years has significantly influenced aquatic communities. More recently, climate change may be rapidly impacting fish assemblages throughout Illinois. Building on the efforts of Forbes and Richardson (1908), Thompson and Hunt (1930), Larimore and Smith (1963), and Larimore and Bayley (1996), the next iteration of "The Fishes of Champaign County" is being conducted by our lab. The study, which began in 2012 and finished in 2015, includes sampling of fish populations at pre-determined field sites, assembly and analysis of land-use and stream habitat data, collection and analysis of physio-chemical habitat data, and analysis of the effect of fish community/environmental parameter interactions on distribution and assemblage characteristics.

Read more about Fishes of Champaign County.

Development of Metrics to Evaluate Fishing Quality

bassFisheries Managers work to support and promote healthy fisheries. To ensure success, resource managers need easy access to long-term fisheries data, analytical tools and metrics that offer insight into the quality of a fishery, and an understanding of the factors that influence fish population dynamics. Toward that end, we're developing a Fishing Quality Index (FQI) for common Illinois sport fish species using data collected through standardized field sampling and creel surveys. The Fishing Quality Index (FQI) will provide researchers, managers, and the public with a simple method to quickly assess the quality of a particular fishery. The FQI will be periodically updated to provide a tool for tracking changes in fishing quality over time. Changes in FQI can alert managers to changes in population dynamics of a particular fishery, therefore providing a valuable tool for resource managers to identify emergent problems and/or assess recent management actions. Additionally, the FQI will be ideal for describing the quality of a particular fishery to the public in a way that is easily understood by anglers.


Because of the popularity of Largemouth Bass angling in Illinois, we created the first metric ranking of Largemouth Bass fishing in Illinois lakes. We are currently working to publish the data in a peer-reviewed journal, as well as (and more importantly) working to analyze current fisheries data to report the quality of Largemouth Bass fishing in Illinois lakes to the public. Once we have completed this task, we will be developing similar metrics for other popular sport fish, including Crappie, Channel Catfish and Bluegill.

Sport Fishery in Lake Michigan

Lincoln_Park_Lagoon_electrofishing.jpgSalmon (Chinook and Coho), trout (Rainbow, Lake, and Brown), black bass (Smallmouth and Largemouth), and Yellow Perch are important recreational fisheries in the Illinois waters of Lake Michigan. Substantial changes in abundance or size structure of any of these populations affect the quality of the sport fishery for anglers. Chinook salmon and Lake Trout are important top predators in Lake Michigan and vital components of Illinois recreational fisheries.  As such, these fish are marked prior to stocking using coded-wire tags to investigate their movements and survival. Project scientists directly partner with Illinois DNR to sample these sport fish, and the data is used by the DNR fishery managers to inform decisions on stocking and harvest, as well as guide project scientists’ research. The monitoring of unclipped “wild” Chinook salmon is done to inform the managers in potential spawning location and magnitude to be accounted for when considering annual stocking plans. A number of Lake Trout in recent gill net surveys have been unmarked, implying that natural reproduction may be taking place in the lake. Research projects to investigate Lake Trout spawning site location and success are in development.

 Acoustic Tracking Study In Grand Bahama

BF_Surgery.jpgThroughout the islands of The Bahamas, bonefishing is not only a popular sport, but also an important component of the tourism industry that contributes greatly to the economic health of many communities. For such a valuable fishery, surprisingly little is known about bonefish movements, particularly when it comes to migrations associated with their reproduction. A recently implemented joint study in Grand Bahama is designed to help provide that information. A team of scientists and fishing guides from industry, academia, and nonprofit organizations are working together on a new research study to answer these questions and ultimately provide the information needed to manage the long-term health of the bonefishery on Grand Bahama. Dr. Jeffrey Stein, Dr. David Philipp and Julie Claussen, all members of our lab, have been an integral part of this study, which is currently entering its second year.




Past Research Projects

Influence of hook type and hook retention on angled bonefish

bonefishHooking is an unavoidable consequence of a catch-and-release angling, potentially causing tissue damage to fish that have been caught. In many situations, fish are hooked in the lip or corner of the mouth, which can make hook removal prior to release easy and rapid, and therefore minimizing major tissue damage. In some instances, however, hooks are ingested deeply by fish with hooking occurring in the gut or esophagus. Additionally, there are many types of hooks used in sport fishing — barbless, barbed, etc. To date, there have been several studies for a range of marine and freshwater species that have investigated the effects of leaving deeply set hooks in place, as well as the post-release effects of removing deeply set hooks.

The objective of this study was to quantify the consequences of hook retention on the survival and feeding performance of bonefish, and to determine if these responses were influenced by hook type, hook size and/or hook location. This study attempted to simulate techniques used in both fly angling and bait fishing.

In addition to our lab, this study is co-authored by the following:
Steve Cooke, University of Ottawa
Andy Danylchuk, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Cory Suski, University of Illinois
Aaron Shultz, Cape Eleuthera Institute
Kit Hayward, Plymouth (UK)

Funding provided by:
Bonefish & Tarpon Trust

Long-Term Trends in Shark Diversity and Abundance in Eastern Exuma Sound


sharkThe joint CEI and University of Illinois shark research team spent two years, a total of four 2-week field expeditions, studying shark populations in The Bahamas at a shallow bank known as "the bridge," which connects the southern tip of Eleuthera to the northern tip of Cat Island. This historical project is re-creating a study from a dataset detailing the diversity and abundance of shark populations in The Bahamas that took place over 30 years ago. The data resulting from those surveys, conducted under the direction of Captain Stephen Connett, represented a snapshot of Bahamian shark abundance and diversity from over 30 years ago. Our research program recreates these shark surveys to look for historical variation in the diversity, abundance and demographic population structure of apex predator assemblages to provide insight into the effectiveness of potential conservation strategies. By repeating an assessment of shark populations in The Bahamas 30 years after the original assessments by Connett, it will be possible to test the effectiveness of the 1990s longline ban, which halted any commercial exploitation of sharks within Bahamian territorial waters.

Results from this study are currently being worked on for publication.

This study is done in partnership with:
Dr. Edd Brooks, Cape Eleuthera Institute
Dr. Jeffrey Stein, Illinois Natural History Survey

Funding provided by:
University of Illinois Research Board, Cape Eleuthera Institute, and Illinois Natural History Survey

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