DNR hatches plan to bring back perch

County will monitor Severn River watershed

Anne Arundel

April 26, 2002|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Tens of thousands of thumbnail-sized, greenish, iridescent fish spewed through a 6-inch- thick hose, emerging in a splash of white foam. Morphing into a black plume, the school of baby fish dispersed and darted from the shore.

With the release yesterday of as many as 70,000 hatchery-raised juvenile yellow perch in the Severn River, state environmental officials unveiled a five-year plan to bring perch back to the Severn and South rivers, and gain a better understanding of how land-use policies have contributed to their decline over the past decade.

Officials with the state Department of Natural Resources, which is coordinating the effort, say stocking the river while studying the effects of development in the watershed is a novel approach to addressing population declines in state fisheries.

"This is a long-term study that's looking at both land use and water and habitat quality," said DNR spokesman, John Surrick. "And the question is: Why don't we have abundant perch in the rivers?"

The Severn and South rivers have historically supported plentiful populations of yellow perch, but in recent years poor water-quality conditions have played a role in the species' decline. State fishery officials closed the yellow perch fishery in both rivers in 1989, but the population has not rebounded.

The restoration and assessment effort calls for a total of 1 million fish larvae and yellow perch fry to be stocked in the Severn and South rivers each year over the next five years. At the same time, the county will survey development in the 40,000-acre Severn River watershed, producing information that state officials plan to use in identifying and correcting problems in water quality.

"Over time, we can very clearly monitor progress and begin to link what's happening in the watershed to what's happening in the water," Eric Schwaab, director of DNR's Fisheries Service, said yesterday.

The yellow perch restoration effort began about a month ago, when DNR officials deposited more than 800,000 larvae in both rivers. They stocked about 100,000 fry in the South River on Wednesday, and within the next few weeks the goal is to release about 300,000 more fish.

The perch fry were raised at a state fish hatchery in Southern Maryland. Adult yellow perch that were collected from the Severn, Choptank and Nanticoke rivers spawned in the hatchery ponds, and the state also stocks larvae, said Steven Minkkinen, director of DNR's fish hatcheries.

The young fish bound for the Severn and South rivers are immersed in a bath of the antibiotic tetracycline, which leaves marks on the bones of the eardrum, making it possible to identify the fish as they grow and travel.

"This allows us to evaluate what kinds of impact we're having by stocking them in the river system," Minkkinen said.

On a dock at the Boat Place Marina on the Severn in Crownsville yesterday, a tank that contained the yellow perch fry sat in the back of a blue pickup truck.

In a prelude to the actual stocking of the river, hatchery employees scooped a dozen pitchers filled with water and fish from the tank and handed them to County Executive Janet S. Owens, representatives from county environmental groups and DNR officials.

The group then formed a circle, and clinked their pitchers for a toast: "To fish health!"

Then, kneeling on the edge of the dock, they emptied their pitchers into the brown water, and stood up to walk back to the parking lot.

"Hey, the tank is still pretty full yet," somebody yelled. "You guys aren't done yet."

At that point, the hatchery team took over, and began the real work of getting the fish into the river. They backed the truck up to the dock edge, attached a hose to the fish tank and pumped the perch out.

Within the next two weeks, Harley Speir, a DNR fisheries scientist, plans to begin looking for the fish with a small seine to get an idea of how they have dispersed and to compare the mix of naturally and hatchery produced fish.

"We'll be sampling the entire river to see how far they extend, how many we find and the water-quality conditions associated with the fish," Speir said. "There are problems with dissolved oxygen in the Severn, and we may want to look at where these young fish end up and what the water quality is there."

Over the five-year span of the project, Speir will monitor fish growth and reproduction, as well. He plans to work with the Severn River Association and the county's Severn River Commission to address how some of the problems in the watershed affect water quality. In addition, Speir said he hopes to involve sport fishermen in the effort.

"A lot of people find it difficult to rally around water quality for water quality's sake," Speir said. "I find it very easy to motivate fishermen if I can say to them, `Water quality will result in more fish for you.'"

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