Photo by Kevin Irons.

May 1, 2023

Mississippi River Benefits from Collaborative Projects

Two men sit at a table in a lounge room. One of the men is engaged in telling a story and gestures while taking with his hands. The other man who is wearing a cap with a brim listens. In the background is a couch and three taxidermied bass fish decorate the wall.
Dan Sallee, foreground. Photo by Scott Gritters, Iowa DNR.

As a new employee, the first task assigned to Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) Fisheries Biologist Dan Sallee was to join a team of fisheries biologists in a study of backwater lake management techniques. It was 1980 and the study area was Burnt Pocket, one of a series of Mississippi River floodplain lakes south of Keithsburg and west of Big River State Forest in Henderson County. In some regards, that team was unique as it consisted of three Illinois Department of Conservation (now Natural Resources) fisheries biologists, with another eight from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and several biologists from each the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Over a four-day period samples were collected and management approaches discussed. That process was repeated three times a year for several years, eventually resulting in a collaborative approach for managing backwater lakes that spanned across state and federal properties and multiple states.

Such is the approach of the Upper Mississippi River Conservation Committee (UMRCC), which formed in December 1943 with 22 biologists from Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin.

A man holds up a large catfish while standing in a boat on a waterway. The photo is sepia-toned, and appears to be taken 50 years ago.
Bill Betrand. Photo by Larry Dunham.

“The Upper Mississippi River covers the northernmost 1,300 miles of the river and gaining an understanding of how to manage the river ecologically, and for the benefit recreational users, is an enormous task,” Sallee explained. “The ecosystem benefits from the collaborative efforts of staff from across the region. During my career I worked with Iowa biologists to study flathead catfish on Pool 16 (between Muscatine, IO and Rock River) of the river, and on a federal refuge study on Pool 24 (from Clarksville, MO to Hannibal, MO) in conjunction with staff from Missouri and USFWS. This exemplifies what UMRCC is—a group of like-minded organizations working to protect and improve the Mississippi River. Everyone on the UMRCC team is pulling on the same rope.”

Bill Bertrand, another IDNR fisheries biologist, worked on the Mississippi River until his retirement in 2002. He appreciates that the multi-state organization emphasizes a holistic approach to resource management. From a fisheries management perspective, he witnessed standardization of a recreational fish survey method and techniques for conducting fisheries samples as well as establishment of fish length limits for the river and development of comprehensive commercial fishing processes and rules.

“When I first started sampling the Mississippi River all we were finding were carp, bullhead and buffalo, and a lot of these fish were emaciated or had open sores as a result of pollution,” Betrand said. “After hours of sampling we were elated to catch a single bluegill or bass.”

Passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 brought about seemingly rapid changes in the health of the river and its inhabitants.

“Within five years of the reduction of industrial pollutants, biologists started noticing enormous improvements in the quality of fish in the Mississippi River,” Bertrand continued.

Sallee and Bertrand agreed that the success of the UMRCC is because the organization works on the ecosystem level rather than by the artificial boundaries that separate states. The organization has developed a system where staff from all agencies are utilizing the same methods, speaking the same language and using the same techniques.

Today more than 200 resource managers participate in UMRCC projects, and the work is assigned to eight teams: fisheries, mussels, recreation, wildlife, water quality, vegetation, education and law enforcement actions.

“Each multi-state team meets annually to identify specific actions to be taken related to building our understanding of the river,” Sallee said. “The wildlife team may be working together to sample aquatic vegetation while the Illinois and Iowa biologists on the fisheries team are working on flathead catfish studies. Because of the collective actions the various teams, an extensive data set evolves each year, and that information benefits all participating states.”

“The value of the collaborative work to manage the natural resources of the Mississippi River can’t be overstated,” Bertrand said. “Without the UMRCC I don’t believe that the Mississippi River would have developed the sport fishery that we have today.”

Bertrand rarely encountered a bass when sampling the river in 1960s. Today, the Mississippi River support numerous national bass fishing tournaments. And walleye fishing tournaments.

Years ago, people believed that the Mississippi River ecosystem could not be managed. Eighty years of work by members of the Upper Mississippi River Conservation Committee have refuted that belief. The 1,300-mile Upper Mississippi River provides quality habitat for fish and wildlife, and those who enjoy associated recreational uses.

Kathy Andrews Wright is retired from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources where she was editor of Outdoor Illinois magazine. She is currently the editor of Outdoor Illinois Journal.

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