Invasive Asian carp. Photo by Ryan Hagerty, USFWS.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Aquatic Nuisance Species Program Goes to Washington
As an aspiring young biologist in college, I had a singular focus of becoming a district fisheries biologist. After 30 plus years in the fisheries profession I can unironically say that my time spent as a district biologist is best measured in months instead of years. Good leaders have a way of encouraging you to step outside your comfort zone and accept new challenges you don’t quite think you’re ready for, and I have been blessed to work for a number of those leaders throughout my career.
All of this is to say that I began working on regional and national fisheries issues relatively early on in my career. My longest tenured involvement, certainly far longer than my time as a district biologist, has been with the Mississippi Interstate Cooperative Resource Association (MICRA). MICRA is an organization of 28 state natural resources management agencies with fisheries management jurisdiction in the Mississippi River Basin. Organized in 1991, MICRA is a partnership to improve management of interjurisdictional fish and other aquatic resources within the basin. Federal agencies and federally chartered entities that manage and regulate Mississippi River Basin resources across states also participate in the MICRA partnership. My role with MICRA began approximately 20 years ago, as the Ohio River Basin representative to the MICRA executive board. The executive board is composed of a representative (usually an agency fish chief) from each of the six Mississippi River sub-basins, a representative from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. The executive board, under leadership of an elected chairperson, and an indispensable USFWS federal coordinator, conduct the business of the partnership. MICRA’s work is supported by modest dues paid by state and federal agency members.
As a multi-state partnership focused on interjurisdictional fisheries issues, it was early on that the spread of invasive carp into the Mississippi River basin became one of the focal issues for MICRA. A challenge in addressing the problem was the lack of funding to support state work on invasive carp. Early on, the national focus was primarily on protecting the Great Lakes from invasion by these fish. While this is certainly important work, addressing the ever-increasing populations of invasive carp in the core of the Mississippi River basin was a growing need. MICRA stepped out of its comfort zone and traveled to Washington D.C. with coolers of carp in tow to raise awareness for the need for funding to states to address these fish where they already existed in the basin. Those early efforts were successful, and funding has grown to support work in all six sub-basins. There is an awareness on Capitol Hill of the need to aggressively manage invasive carp and an understanding that MICRA, as the voice of the state fisheries management agencies within the basin, plays an important role.
The state of Illinois has received vital funding through these efforts for work both in the Ohio and Mississippi river basins. But more importantly, our work to combat invasive carp is being integrated with the work of surrounding states to holistically address the problem at the sub-basin and basin wide scale. Only by working together across state lines through partnerships like MICRA are we capable of addressing the challenges these fish pose to our ecosystems, boaters, hunters and anglers.
For the last two years I have had the privilege of joining the MICRA team in Washington D.C. MICRA has a representative from each of the sub-basins as well as the MICRA chair, and MICRA policy coordinator as part of the team. The team spends a week in conjunction with National Invasive Species Awareness Week, meeting with Congress to raise awareness. MICRA develops a list of talking points prior to the trip and these talking points guide our discussions with congressional staffers. The talking points focus on the management needs of basin states to address invasive carp populations and other aquatic invasive species as well as legislative language changes that would help facilitate interjurisdictional fisheries management. A typical day for the team involves traveling up to the various U.S. House and Senate buildings and meeting with congressional staff. These meetings are usually a half hour in length and are arranged in advance by MICRA’s policy coordinator. We highlight work by the state fisheries agencies to address carp populations, challenges and opportunities. One of our primary talking points has been the need for a Mississippi Basin Fisheries Commission and how it would expand on MICRA’s ability to address a variety of challenges within the basin and provide increased support for this type of work.
I could have never imagined as a young biologist that my career would lead me to navigating the marbled halls of Congress to serve in this role for a cause I care so deeply about. I am incredibly thankful to Illinois Department of Natural Resources agency leadership for supporting my participation in this impactful work.
Brian Schoenung is the Aquatic Nuisance Species Program Manager for the state of Illinois. Prior experience includes his role as an Asian Carp specialist and chief of fisheries with Indiana. Schoenung served as Ohio River Fisheries Management Team representative to the Mississippi Interstate Cooperative Resource Association (MICRA), served as Chair of MICRA and currently immediate past chair. He is co-chairing the recently reformulated MICRA Invasive Carp Advisory Committee. Schoenung’s background has been heavily focused on the carp side of invasive species.