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Great Rivers

Restoring Wetlands Gives Fish a Fighting Chance

"If you build it, they will come" doesn't just apply to baseball. Tharran Hobson is watching the amazing comeback of a beautiful little sunfish that has taken a definite liking to The Nature Conservancy's restoration efforts in the floodplains of the Illinois River.

Red-spotted sunfish thrive in the clear waters of vegetated marshes and streams. In recent years, their numbers have declined due to wetland loss, nutrient and sediment runoff and invasive species. It's possible they may have completely disappeared from the Illinois River.

Hobson, the Conservancy's Illinois River restoration manager, is working with the Illinois Natural History Survey and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to re-establish red-spotted sunfish through breeding and relocation, primarily at Emiquon on the Illinois River.

A Wetland is Reborn

Isolated from the river by levees and converted to farmland long ago, the Conservancy's Emiquon Preseve is experiencing a rebirth. In 2007, Conservancy staff in Illinois launched a major effort to restore 7,100 acres of former floodplain, prairie and upland forest at Emiquon. The Great Rivers Partnership has supported their efforts by advancing policy changes needed to enable the restoration and securing donations of monitoring equipment and other resources.

Today, hundreds of acres of prairie and wetland have been planted at Emiquon, water is returning to former lakebeds and hundreds of thousands of waterfowl, including 20 duck species, are using the area during migration.

"The next step," said Hobson, "is to see if we can restore some of the fish species that were once native to these wetlands including the red-spotted sunfish, iron-colored shiner and starhead topminnow."

Helping Fish Make a Comeback

In spring 2008, Illinois fisheries biologists transferred 50 adult male and female sunfish of reproductive age from Fish Creek, one of only two known red-spotted sunfish populations in Illinois, to a rare species rearing pond at the University of Illinois. By spring 2009, those 50 had reproduced and nearly 4,000 yearlings were relocated to a rearing pond at Emiquon.

"It's difficult to say how many red-spotted sunfish are in the rearing pond right now," said Hobson. "One day we were out there electro-fishing, and so many fish came up I think we could have walked on the pond without getting our feet wet."

This spring, about 2,000 fish were moved from the rearing pond to Thompson Lake at Emiquon, and they are thriving.

Hobson adds that red-spotted sunfish aren't the only fish species benefitting from the restoration effort. Emiquon is open to the public for fishing, and visitors can find good populations of largemouth bass, crappie, bluegill, channel catfish and pumpkinseed sunfish, all of which were added to the lakes in the past three years. Other non-game species like spotted gar, pirate perch and orange-spotted sunfish are also doing well at Emiquon.

"These fish are part of our natural heritage here in Illinois," said Hobson. "If we can restore their habitat, we can help bring them back, and it seems like we're off to a good start."

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