Georgia’s fisheries chief winds up long career

BILL BAAB/Staff John Biagi checks out Georgia’s fishes wall of fame. The Fisheries Division chief has retired after 27 years in the department.

For the last 10 years, John Biagi has led a team of professional biologists and technicians whose goals include maintaining the health and well-being of Georgia’s multitude of fishes and their habitats.

 

The 52-year-old chief of the Fisheries Division of the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division retired at the end of October.

A farewell party for Biagi and his family was held at the Go Fish Georgia Education Center near Perry and that venue could not be more appropriate. He lists the center as the No. 1 of his many accomplishments during his tenure.

While born in Kentucky, Biagi and his family moved to Evansville, Ind., and he calls that city home. He is a graduate of Murray State (Ky.) University with bachelor’s and masters degrees in biology with the emphasis on fisheries.

He plans to stay in Newton County where he and his wife of 34 years maintain a home. They are parents of two and grandparents of two, he said, and the grandchildren are close by.

His first job out of college was as a biologist with the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, working out of West Palm Beach.

He joined the Georgia department 27 years ago as a fisheries biologist assigned to the Chattahoochee River trout fishery, working out of the state’s Walton Fish Hatchery, and in 2001 was promoted to assistant chief of fisheries under then Chief Chuck Coomer. In 2007, Biagi was promoted to his present position with Matt Thomas as assistant chief of fisheries.

He emphasized that the Go Fish Georgia initiative was not originally his, but he later became involved and “I ran with it. The idea was getting people back into fishing and making it as easy as possible for them to do so.” He said the center attracts visitors from all over the nation, not just Georgians.

The Wildlife Resources Division, one of a number of agencies under the Georgia Department of Natural Resources umbrella, also publishes an online fishing report covering the state each week.

In 1997, he was promoted to start up the stream survey team, whose job was to sample streams large and small to determine their overall health and that of their finny inhabitants. The technique employed by biologists and technicians is to don waders and a backpack electrofisher to collect fish from the streams.

“It was the hardest work I’d ever done,” Biagi said, “but it led to an index on the health of our streams.” If an issue was found, it was reported to the State Environmental Protection Division.

“The stream team program that John started still functions today,” said fisheries biologist Ed Bettross, who joined the state department about the same time as his boss and works on projects in the Augusta area out of the Thomson District office. “It provides a more in-depth approach to basin-wide management.

“John’s tenure as chief included many challenging rounds of budget cuts, leading to the reorganization of programs and staff,” Bettross continued. “However, no ‘warm bodies’ were ever released from employment due to budget cuts. John and his staff always found a way to take care of their DNR family. The concept that DNR is a family still holds true for me today and is a selling point for new hires.”

“I have been blessed by my staff,” Biagi said. “They are all good people and we have accomplished great things.”

Spud Woodward, director of Georgia’s Coastal Resources Division in Brunswick, said Biaggi’s “unflappable demeanor served him well in a leadership position, especially during the tough times of the Great Recession when the department budget was repeatedly reduced, but angler expectations for products and services remained the same. The citizens of Georgia and his colleagues at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources have been well served by John Biagi. I wish him a happy and active retirement.”

Yet another of Biagi’s projects deals with the state’s bass population, of which there are 10 different species. One result of the eye-opening study showed that 92 percent of the Ocmulgee River bass population was composed of the Florida subspecies, Biagi said. It has long been thought that George Perry’s world record, 22-pound, 4-ounce bass, caught in that river’s oxbow lake called Montgomery in 1932, was kin to Florida largemouths since that area may be in the extreme northern section of their range. That subspecies grows to larger sizes than do largemouths.

A program called the Bass Slam was designed to focus public attention on all of the bass. It called for fishermen to catch at least five of the available species and earn a certificate signed by Biagi and a chance to win a prize. “I decided to enter and so far I’ve caught four different bass,” said Biagi, himself a bass fisherman who uses a kayak. It will give him great personal satisfaction to complete the Slam and sign his own certificate.

Yet another of his concerns is bass hybridization. Simply put, closely related fish species can hybridize under certain conditions.

“Those that normally live together, such as bluegills and redbreast sunfish, will occasionally cross, but at a low level,” he said. “Pollution or habitat degradation can increase the likelihood of hybridization in fish that normally live together. However, bass hybridization occurs much more commonly when a species of bass that is not native to a water body is introduced.

“Alabama spotted bass and smallmouth bass introduced into rivers outside of their native range has resulted in the reduction of native bass species such as shoal bass, largemouth bass and redeye bass.”

A good example can be found in the Savannah River shoals below I-20 when someone illegally stocked smallmouth bass in the river.

Other programs involve raising walleyes for stocking in the cold waters of the state’s mountain lakes.

 

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