November 1, 2022
Illinois record pink salmon (top row second from left) caught in July, 2022.

CARES Act Benefitted Illinois Lake Michigan Charter Sportfishing Industry

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By Vic Santucci

Photos courtesy of the author.

Thanks to an infusion of $333,463 from the CARES Act, the Illinois charter fishing industry, significantly impacted by the recent pandemic, has been strengthened.

A screenshot of a website providing information about the Illinois Lake Michigan Charter Sportfishing CARES ACT II COVID Relief Funding Opportunity.
Example of the CARES Act II funding opportunity announcements displayed on the IDNR Division of Fisheries website news slider. Announcements ran from September 23 to November 22, 2021 and from December 13, 2021 to January 5, 2022.

Mandates implemented to protect citizen health and prevent the spread of COVID-19 suspended the operation of fishing industries in coastal communities around the country and the Great Lakes. In response to coronavirus impacts on the Great Lakes fishing industry, and as a supplement to CARES Act I directed at marine fisheries (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, Section 12005: Assistance to Fishery Participants), the U.S. Congress included Great Lakes fisheries industries in December 2020 legislation known as CARES Act II (Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021, P.L. 116-260). For Illinois, for-hire charter sport fishing was the only fishing industry operating in Lake Michigan during the pandemic, and thus, was the only Illinois industry eligible to receive CARES Act II relief funding.

Funds from CARES Act II were administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) through a grant to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission (GLFC). As a Great Lakes state, Illinois received an allocation of these funds and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) was able to facilitate a program to accomplish two tasks: 1) divide available funding in an equitable fashion to Illinois Lake Michigan charter sportfishing operators seeking relief and demonstrating losses due to the pandemic; and 2) utilize any remaining funds to promote Illinois’ Lake Michigan Charter Fishing industry by targeting previous charter anglers who had dropped out due to the pandemic, and to recruit new anglers to the sport.

A graphic showing six billboard designs created for the Lake Michigan charter sportfishing promotional campaign. Each design has a large fish in the center jumping out of the water to grab a fishing lurer on a hook.
Six design images created for the Lake Michigan charter sportfishing billboard promotional campaign. The three images on the left were displayed at four static billboard locations and all six images were displayed programmatically at 32 digital billboard locations in the Chicago Metro Area during the summer of 2022.

IDNR’s Lake Michigan Program staff developed an application and criteria for eligibility to receive funds based on requirements of the Act. Fifty-two potential state-registered charter sportfishers were contacted via email and an announcement was placed on the IDNR Division of Fisheries website. In total, 14 applications from 13 charter sportfishing captains were received. All applicants were Illinois residents and one operated two separate for-hire sportfishing businesses.

Applications were reviewed for accuracy and all established eligibility requirements, including the 35 percent loss requirement specified in the act. Direct payments from GLFC totaling $247,576 were made to successful applicants in late January and early February 2022.

The general response of the Illinois charter sportfishing community to the CARES program was overwhelmingly positive. Most captains who received payment called to express gratitude for the funding relief and several indicated they planned to sink much of their payment back into their businesses for needed boat and engine repairs and gear upgrades.

With some CARES II funds remaining, IDNR reviewed Illinois Lake Michigan charter sportfishing effort and participation data to assess the need for additional stimuli that could reinvigorate participation to pre-pandemic levels. While the data indicated participation improved in 2021 compared to 2020, participation remained well below pre-pandemic levels. With a need identified, the decision was made to implement a billboard promotional campaign. The intent of the campaign was to increase participation in charter sportfishing on Lake Michigan by activating new clients and reengaging clients who had dropped out as charter patrons due to the pandemic. Benefits of the campaign included: increasing the number of charter patrons, fishing trips and revenues for a broad spectrum of Illinois charter captains and businesses in Illinois; increasing public knowledge of Great Lakes sport fishing opportunities in Chicago and northeastern Illinois; and creating a more vibrant and resilient sport fishing industry in the Illinois water of Lake Michigan.

A graphic showing how different billboard designs for the Lake Michigan charter sportfishing promotional campaign will look alongside a major highway.
Examples of digital billboard images displayed during the Lake Michigan charter sportfishing promotional campaign. Six different graphics were programmatically displayed on 32 digital billboards in the Chicago Metro Area from June 14-July 24 (41 days) and September 2–18 (16 days) generating over 2,000,000 10-second display impressions.

IDNR facilitated a contract between the GLFC and graphic design and media firms based in Chicago to conceptualize and create billboard content for the campaign, and to set up the billboards in key areas across northeastern Illinois.

Four Illinois charter captains assisted IDNR in reviewing campaign messaging and design concepts. The captains represented each of Illinois’ three main Lake Michigan charter sportfishing associations/harbors—Chicago Harbors, Waukegan Harbor and North Point Marina in Winthrop Harbor. At least one captain joined IDNR at each of two content review and selection meetings hosted by the design firm. Suggestions and comments provided by the captains helped refine and finalize campaign messaging and graphic designs. In the end, IDNR approved six billboard graphics—three featuring a lake trout and three featuring a coho salmon. Those graphics were prominently displayed on four static and 32 digital billboards located along major highways around the Chicago Metro Area (including Waukegan) during the summer of 2022.

Concurrent to the development of the media campaign, a Lake Michigan Charter Fishing website was created. The site allows potential patrons to submit inquiries and directs users to other online resources provided by the Lake Michigan charter fishing industry.

A group of people posing by a successfully caught salmon in a white charter fishing boat at a marina.
The current Illinois record pink salmon caught in August 2022.

This project was a grand success thanks to cooperation and participation by Great Lakes states, federal partners, IDNR staff and local charter captains. All parties dedicated time and effort to distribute CARES ACT II funds and meet the needs of the charter fishing industry impacted by the coronavirus pandemic and promote Lake Michigan’s world class salmon and trout fishery.

Charter fishing has been very active in the Illinois waters of Lake Michigan. In 2022, a surprise resurgence in pink salmon was noted, with several record pink salmon caught. Numerous and big coho and chinook salmon (see article by Frank Sladek) have also been reported and lake trout, which are starting to reproduce naturally, are plentiful throughout the region.


Vic Santucci is the Lake Michigan Program Manager with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Division of Fisheries.

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