UAPB alumni conserve state’s aquatic resources in careers with AGFC

Will Hehemann School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences

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Chris Racey and Ben Batten. (Photos by Mike Wintroath, AGFC photographer)

Two alumni of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB) Aquaculture/Fisheries Center of Excellence who formerly worked together as research associates during their graduate studies are now collaborating in their careers at the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC). Chris Racey, chief of fisheries for the AGFC, and Ben Batten, assistant chief, credit their education at UAPB with providing the insight and skills necessary to succeed in their career as they work to create fishing opportunities for Arkansas’ anglers and conserve aquatic resources across the state.

After earning his bachelor’s degree in biology in his home state of Pennsylvania, Racey found his way to Arkansas after researching fisheries assistantships online.

“I discovered an opportunity to work on a crappie stocking evaluation study with Dr. Steve Lochmann, a professor of aquaculture and fisheries at UAPB,” he said. “I knew I wanted to work on a sport fish species for my master’s degree thesis, so it was a great match. I had never been to Arkansas, but as an avid duck hunter was aware of the great duck hunting opportunities in the state. The opportunity to hunt and enjoy other outdoor activities in a state like Arkansas while pursuing my professional passion of fisheries management was too much to pass up.”

Batten, an Illinois native who earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said he started working with Racey on his second day in Arkansas when he began his graduate studies in aquaculture/fisheries at UAPB and started working as a research assistant.

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Chris Racey, chief of fisheries for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, center, is presented the AGFC 10 Year Service Award by former AGFC chairman Emon Mahony, far left, and former AGFC director Mike Knoedl, far right.

“Chris and I have been working together ever since, just over 12 years now,” he said. “Besides the professional relationship, Chris and I also hunt and fish together. We have the trust and foundation that comes from working together professionally and personally for so long, which allows us to communicate very openly and honestly.”

Now Racey manages a team of 97 full-time AGFC fisheries and aquatic resource professionals whose mission is to conserve, protect, manage and enhance Arkansas’s fish and other aquatic species and their habitats. In addition to ensuring sustainable fishing access for the public, they collaborate on a larger scale with organizations across the southeast to address pertinent natural resource issues.

Racey said he and Batten lead a team of five fisheries division administrators who mentor AGFC staff and address any problems or opportunities related to Arkansas’ fisheries.

“The best part of my job is having the chance to work with some of the most passionate and skilled professionals on the planet,” Racey said. “The AGFC is made up of highly-trained, energetic professionals who operate well as a team and whom many in the organization consider a second family.”

Batten is responsible for overseeing the offices of AGFC fisheries management biologists in Rogers, Mountain Home, Jonesboro and Brinkley. Together, these biologists manage the fisheries in 33 Arkansas counties.

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Ben Batten, assistant chief of fisheries for the AGFC, examines a channel catfish caught during an electrofishing exercise on Willow Beach Lake in Pulaski County, Arkansas.

“I assist the field staff in their duties monitoring fish populations, making regulations for fisheries and managing construction projects associated with boating accesses and fishing facilities,” he said. “Though my current position consists of a lot of office work, meetings and coordination, most of the folks I oversee are out in the field, working on the lakes, rivers and streams of Arkansas.”

Batten said those in the field are responsible for growing and stocking fish and protecting, restoring and enhancing aquatic habitats. They also reach out to local anglers and other stakeholders to assess any needs or concerns and respond to environmental issues throughout the state.

“The single greatest challenge of the job is balance,” he said. “We have a wide variety of people that are interested in the work we do, including anglers, conservationists, AGFC employees and commissioners and legislators. These groups have a diverse range of interests and our mission is to find a way to benefit as many people as possible while adequately protecting our state’s natural resources.”

Despite the challenges, Batten said he finds his career very rewarding.

“At the AGFC I get to work on issues I’m passionate about both professionally and personally,” he said. “The greatest part of the job is receiving positive feedback from anglers and other stakeholders in aquatic conservation that we have positively impacted through our work.”

Racey said his education at UAPB paved the way for his career with the AGFC, where he started as a research biologist and later served in the communications division and as assistant chief of fisheries management before he was appointed chief in 2015.

“I am grateful for the outstanding education I received from a world-renowned program that included relevant coursework and laboratory exercises,” he said. “My thesis research prepared me to use science to appropriately design a study and answer important fisheries management questions. There was also a strong emphasis on getting graduate students to collaborate with each other on projects, which gave me a broader understanding of the issues that affect Arkansas.”

Racey said he found the rigorous, three-tiered approach to education at the UAPB Aquaculture/Fisheries Center especially helpful. The approach, which includes coursework, a thesis project with a defense and a final examination of knowledge, ensures that graduate students are expertly prepared to take on future jobs with state or federal natural resources agencies, nongovernmental organizations, private industry or academia, he said.

“Without the UAPB-AQFI program, I would not be where I am today,” Batten said. “The relationship between the students and faculty is great. In graduate school the students and professors not only have a student-teacher relationship, but also function somewhat like colleagues. This is very helpful for the transition into professional life, as it helps foster lasting professional relationships.”

Batten said his primary advisors at UAPB, Dr. Lochmann and Dr. Mike Eggleton, professors of aquaculture and fisheries, were extremely influential in his development as a fisheries professional.

“I’m very grateful that they were such an instrumental part of my education,” he said. “They are both extremely strong scientists and they helped me hone the knowledge that has greatly benefitted me in my career.”

Batten encourages current aquaculture/fisheries students to consider searching for jobs at the AGFC. He said the faculty at UAPB work closely with the AGFC’s fisheries division; they know the knowledge future biologists will need and work hard to prepare students to be strong employees.

“AGFC is probably the single largest employer of students with master’s degrees from the UAPB-AQFI program,” he said. “The agency has a relatively young and progressive staff from the field biologist level up through the administrators. This makes for a fun, exciting time to be working in the Fisheries Division at AGFC.”

Racey said his interest in aquaculture/fisheries began during his undergraduate studies in a lab exercise for a biology course.

“My class conducted a fish community electrofishing exercise in a popular trout fishing stream that ran through campus,” he said. “After watching those fish roll up to the surface during the incredibly cool electrofishing exercise and considering my strong interest in fishing, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in fisheries and aquatic resource management.”

He recommends the field of aquaculture/fisheries for those like himself who love being outside and are passionate about natural resource management.

To learn more about the AGFC, visit http://www.agfc.com.

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