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Are you one of the nearly 2 million people who enjoy fishing in Wisconsin? Do you live along or play on one of our 15,000 lakes or 44,000 miles of streams? Do you own or live near any of our nearly 5.3 million acres of wetlands? Have you enjoyed the scenic vistas and vast recreational opportunities available along our 860 miles of Great Lakes' shoreline? Do you, or your business, benefit from Wisconsin's popular fishing or water-related tourism industry?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, then in some way the Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Management and Habitat Protection program affects your life.
The Wisconsin DNR is the only agency in the country with a comprehensive waters program that unifies regulatory, environmental quality and resource management functions to provide for a fishery that supports 161 fish species.
Our Fisheries Management and Habitat Protection program is responsible for all "in-the-water" regulatory, monitoring and management activities affecting Wisconsin's Great Lakes, inland lakes, streams, rivers and wetlands; and the aquatic plants, amphibians and reptiles, non-game fish, panfish and larger game fish that live in these systems. We work to protect, restore and enhance these resources through lakes and wetlands management, surface water monitoring, fish contaminant monitoring and water regulations relating to navigable waters and wetlands.
We employ about 270 staff across the state including fisheries biologists and technicians, fish hatchery supervisors and technicians, disease specialists, aquatic habitat experts, water management specialists and water resources specialists.
We have an annual budget of about $23 million. About 73 percent comes from fishing license sales and federal Sport Fish Restoration funds. The rest comes from state General Purpose Revenues, permit fees or federal water quality grants.
Managing the state's fisheries isn't the only thing we do, but it is one of the most important – and understanding how we do that will give you a good idea of how our program operates.
We have over 1.4 million licensed sport anglers. Fishing also is big business. In 1996, sport anglers spent over 17 million days fishing in Wisconsin – almost 4 million by non-residents. That level of angling accounted for $1.1 billion dollars in direct expenditures, $2.1 billion in economic activity, 30,410 jobs, and $75 million in state income and sales taxes.
Commercial fisheries exist – primarily in the Great Lakes, but also in the Mississippi River and several other larger inland waters. The largest remaining industry is on Lake Michigan where about 100 commercial licenses annually sell around $10 million worth of fish. Native American treaty fisheries annually harvest about 25-30,000 walleyes and 200-300 muskellunge by spring spearfishing. And there are commercial bait fisheries and other "non-fish" fisheries such as freshwater mussels, frogs and turtles – for which little is known about the number of users or amount of harvest.
The single most important element in a quality fishery – and a healthy ecosystem – is habitat.
Effective habitat protection and restoration is the most cost-effective fisheries management that we can do. After years of experimenting with management strategies, we have yet to find one that improves on a self-sustaining natural system existing in good habitat. Fisheries flourish at no cost to anglers; surface waters are drinkable, swimmable, and boatable; we get free groundwater recharge and storm water retention; natural scenic beauty is enhanced; and aquatic biodiversity is protected.
Effective habitat management requires an integrated approach including regulation, education and restoration. We involve our constituents in our management activities – no regulatory program is ultimately successful without significant acceptance among those being regulated and that acceptance is best gained through educational programs and making open participatory decisions.
Yet society continues to voluntarily and involuntarily trade off aquatic habitat and self-sustaining ecosystems for things deemed of higher value – lakeshore and watershed development, industrial and nonpoint discharges, surface and diversions, river damming, exotic species introductions and overharvest.
In this imperfect reality we need regulatory, stocking, and restoration programs. We believe we have some of the finest such programs in the nation – but we hope that you will not lose sight of the fact that these activities are Band-Aids to cover basic habitat problems.
We also have tools for what is usually termed enhancement. We use put-and-take stocking (stocking fish when they are young and allowing them to grow to a catchable size), aeration system installation in naturally winterkilling ponds (those that freeze through in the winter), construction of "new" wetlands as mitigation for lost natural wetlands, reservoir construction, and nonnative species introduction such as rainbow trout. But these are costly activities reserved for special situations where there are pressing local needs, extended funding sources, or as a last resort in situations to address political realities.
Finally, we have access, educational and urban fishing programs, which promote involvement and an understanding of aquatic systems. These programs are important because the aquatic resources need a constituency. Users who enjoy these resources will be willing to fight for them when they are threatened.
A few years ago we began efforts to work more closely with our user groups – one of the things we did was ask some focus groups what they knew about fisheries management. The answers shocked us – generally, people said they didn't know anything about what we did, and those that did know something about our program assumed all we did was stock fish. Read on and you'll learn about some of the important fisheries management tools that we use – habitat protection, restoration and enhancement, harvest regulation, fish stocking, and education – and how they are all tools necessary to make sure Wisconsin continues to have quality fishery.
Mike Staggs is bureau director of the DNR's Fisheries Management and Habitat Protection Program.