Yellow perch are left dangling as debate rages over their health

December 01, 2005|By CANDUS THOMSON

If you listened to the talk Monday night in Annapolis, you'd have come away wondering whether Maryland's yellow perch population is plentiful or pitiful.

"Plentiful," proclaimed state fisheries biologists and watermen.

"Pitiful," replied recreational anglers.

Debating the future of wildlife resources goes back even further than the great Socratic exercises of "tastes great" vs. "less filling," and the merits of Certs as a candy mint or breath mint.

Rockfish, oysters, crabs - no matter the critter, the outcome of these Department of Natural Resources informational meetings is always a confusing stew of anecdotal evidence, scientific numbers and conflicting passions. Nature of the beast, I guess.

And after these eye-glazing meetings, I am always left with two questions:

1) Are we all talking about the same resources?

2) How do I get the coffee concession?

This week's exercise, to review long-range studies of Maryland's white and yellow perch, ran true to form.

First, the Lidocaine drip of data in the form of PowerPoint charts and graphs and multi-syllabic words to numb the brain.

Bottom line, biologists said, the white perch population shows "remarkable reproduction," with no signs of overfishing. The outlook is so upbeat that DNR sees "no pressing need for management changes" in 2006, such as setting size or creel limits for recreational anglers.

So far, so good.

Then came the status report on yellow perch, which was not nearly as optimistic. The Magothy, Nanticoke, Patapsco, Severn, South and West rivers remain closed under a management plan approved in 2002.

But the fish are "relatively abundant" overall, DNR insisted, maybe even good enough to allow watermen a crack at some of the closed areas.

But few recreational anglers at the meeting were buying what DNR was selling. Things are bad and getting worse, they said. So bad, in fact, that some anglers threw around the "M" word: moratorium.

The Coastal Conservation Association demanded that DNR make it illegal for watermen to sell yellow perch, saying commercial activity is incompatible with efforts to restore yellow perch to their historic spawning grounds.

Watermen shook their heads and crossed their arms.

As the band played "Here we go again," the air filled with verbal fireworks.

Capt. Mike Benjamin, a fishing guide from North East, declared yellow perch fishing dead in the Upper Chesapeake Bay.

"We used to have a yellow perch fishery 25-30 years ago. There used to be 1,500 people up there fishing through the ice. Now I can tell you the names of all the people up there; that's how bad it is.

"There aren't any eggs. There aren't any fish. There's nothing to fish for," he concluded.

Fishermen from Southern Maryland and the Eastern Shore shared equally gloomy assessments of traditional springtime perch runs such as Allen's Fresh in Charles County, Wayson's Corner in Anne Arundel County, Arrington Run in Queen Anne County and the tributaries around Leonardtown in St. Mary's County.

"The perch run at Arrington has ceased. It went from good to nothing," said Sherman Baynard. "I have walked the length from the headwaters and there are no impairments. Why aren't the fish there?"

Baynard, a leading member of the Coastal Conservation Association, expressed sympathy for DNR's chronic cash and manpower shortages, but he complained of a disconnect between fishermen and the agency.

"We've been at this for eight years," he said of restoration efforts. "The department has not been responsive to the yellow perch until we beat you over the head. We get frustrated when we ask you over and over again."

CCA members have participated in stream assessments and restocking programs around the bay. In Anne Arundel County this year, for example, volunteers assessed habitat, looked for blockages and measured water quality in the spawning areas of the Severn River as part of a comparison between conditions 30 years ago and now.

Many of them are convinced that watermen, who sell their catch to Midwestern and Canadian markets, are largely responsible for depletion of the yellow perch.

But watermen painted a picture more supportive of DNR's vision of, perhaps, opening the Choptank and Nanticoke rivers to commercial fishing.

Danny Beck, former president of the Baltimore County Watermen's Association, said waterfront development and pollution, not commercial fishing, caused the decline of yellow perch.

He noted that despite closing the Magothy and Severn rivers in the 1980s, the fish have not returned.

Beck said it's possible the perch have chosen to spawn in new, less-polluted waters such as the Nanticoke.

"It's a land-use issue. You won't have the yellow perch if you don't have good habitat," he said. "There's no reason we can't restore these streams."

Fisheries director Howard King said the agency will assess public comment and survey data before deciding whether to maintain present restrictions or open up some of the traditional yellow perch fishing areas.

Plentiful or pitiful? You can weigh in with comments to DNR until Dec. 9. Contact Dale Weinrich, Fisheries Service, Matapeake Work Center, 301 Marine Academy Drive, Stevensville 21666; 410-643-6801, ext. 126; fax 410-643-4136; or email dweinrich@dnr.state.md.us.

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