Will Hehemann | School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences
Recreational angling is an economic engine for Arkansas as 555,000 anglers spend around $517 million in the state annually, said Dr. Mike Eggleton, professor of aquaculture and fisheries at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. The sizeable economic impact of recreational fishing is a testament to the state’s aquatic biodiversity.
“If Arkansas happened to be a coastal state and included access to marine fisheries, it would possibly be the state with the most diverse fisheries in the U.S.,” he said. “Our landlocked state has a tremendous amount of water resources and contains the full spectrum of freshwater fishery ecosystems present elsewhere in the country.”
Arkansas’ abundance of recreational fishing opportunities highlights the diversity of its fisheries resources, Dr. Eggleton said. Anglers can fish for trout in the state’s cold-water fisheries, walleye in cool water, and black bass, sunfish and catfish in warm-water environments.
Fisheries are natural areas that include populations of aquatic organisms that can be harvested for commercial or recreational purposes, he said. Though the UAPB Aquaculture/Fisheries Center of Excellence has traditionally focused on the development of aquaculture – the rearing of aquatic animals for food – throughout the state, the institution has been increasing its coursework and research on fisheries management and fish ecology since the mid-1990s.
“As stresses on aquatic environments continue to increase throughout the U.S. due to issues such as the need for water, watershed development and natural resource exploitation, fisheries conservation is more relevant than ever,” Dr. Eggleton said. “UAPB is currently expanding its research in this area and working with state agencies such as the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC) on a number of projects to better protect and enhance the state’s aquatic resources.”
In recent years, UAPB fisheries research has addressed areas including supplemental fish stocking, fish stock assessments, native species restoration and control of invasive species. Most projects for a given year result from discussions with the AGFC during annual fisheries conferences on the agency’s most timely research needs. The research UAPB provides helps the agency make science-based management decisions on state regulatory policies.
“AGFC is starting to fund more research projects through universities and UAPB is well-positioned to take advantage of these opportunities,” Dr. Steve Lochmann, professor of aquaculture and fisheries at UAPB, said. “AGFC biologists request UAPB expertise in areas including study designs, specialized activities such as the surgical implantation of radio transmitters in fish for tracking purposes, and for the analysis and interpretation of AGFC data. They call us because we will drop what we are doing to help.”
The science of fisheries management involves manipulating wild fish populations or their habitat to enhance recreational fishing experiences and to improve the economic value of a fishery, Dr. Lochmann said. Research on the supplemental stocking of sport fish in Arkansas waters has helped the AGFC improve many of the state’s fisheries and their ability to better cater to anglers.
“Improving the quality of a fishery involves precise research about the species of fish that live there and their growth and death rates,” he said. “Once it is determined that stocking a certain species of sport fish adds value to a fishery, the AGFC is able to optimize their hatchery operations by breeding and stocking that fish. When released to a pond, lake or river, those fish add to existing fish populations.”
After sport fish fingerlings are stocked in a particular body of water, UAPB regularly samples the population to determine whether stocked fish are contributing to the fisheries in which they were released. Ultimately, UAPB researchers hope to see stocked fish surviving, as the purpose of stocking fish is to contribute positively to the population. Current projects at UAPB aim to improve the efficiency of stock enhancement research and the ability to deliver the most accurate data on stocked fish populations to agencies such as the AGFC.
Dr. Eggleton said stock assessments in a fishery can occasionally lead to changes in fishing regulations such as the statewide length limits, which stipulate the size of fish that can be legally harvested from particular bodies of water. In 2013, the AGFC reduced the minimum length limit on largemouth bass – the most popular sport fish in Arkansas – from 15 inches to 14 inches based on UAPB’s extensive research on bass populations in the Arkansas River.
“The research on the largemouth bass fishery in the Arkansas River began in the early 2000s after the AGFC received complaints from anglers about smaller sizes of bass than in previous years and an increase in the hours of effort needed to catch a 5-pound bass,” he said. “After extensive data collection and modeling we determined that adult bass were taking longer to grow to 15 inches, likely due to the hydrologic conditions of the Arkansas River at the time.”
UAPB’s modeling data suggested that the largemouth bass fishery should be able to sustain itself with a smaller minimum-length limit regulation. AGFC changed the regulation to provide the best overall balance between fishery yield, mean size of harvested fish and population size structure. At the same time, the change also accommodated competitive tournament anglers hoping to weigh in more bass.
In addition to research on sport fish, several UAPB fisheries projects also track the populations of fish species native to Arkansas that may be threatened or endangered, Dr. Lochmann said. In 2015, he began research on the Strawberry darter, a species of fish endemic to the Strawberry River drainage and in great need of conservation according to the Arkansas Wildlife Action Plan.
Other UAPB projects seek to monitor aquatic species that are not native to Arkansas. Dr. Lochmann is currently leading a project that investigates the population statistics, characteristics and diets of the northern snakehead, an invasive species native to Asia that is currently present in Arkansas and five other states.
“Individual northern snakehead will be captured, implanted with a radio telemetry tag and monitored on multiple time scales,” he said. “These data will provide insights into movement and population dynamics and help inform future AGFC management decisions regarding this invasive exotic fish species.”
Dr. Lochmann said fisheries-related research at UAPB received a boost with the creation of the master’s degree program in aquaculture and fisheries. The expanded research has provided UAPB students the opportunity to engage in hands-on research in cooperation with organizations such as the AGFC, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“The department has trained 17 graduate and undergraduate students who went to work for the AGFC,” he said. “UAPB graduates trained in fisheries management have also gone to work as biologists for out-of-state agencies such as the Missouri Department of Conservation, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, Illinois Natural History Survey and North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.”