Bill shows hole in DNR's confidence net


February 18, 2007|By CANDUS THOMSON

When it comes to consumer confidence in the Department of Natural Resources, Senate Bill 702 shows how far the agency has fallen.

The Coastal Conservation Association Maryland is pushing legislation that would ban commercial yellow perch fishing in Chesapeake Bay tributaries from Jan. 1 to March 20 to protect spawning fish.

Leadership of the group says after waiting eight years for DNR to do something to protect yellow perch, it had to take the lead.

Ken Lewis, chairman of CCA's Government Relations Committee, acknowledges that it would rather let DNR do its job. "When it doesn't, we have no alternative but to turn to our elected representatives in the legislature," he says.

CCA's lack of confidence is not unfounded. Members recall DNR's all-thumbs attempt last year to update its yellow perch management plan and allow commercial activities in protected waters. I'm no scientist, but I have seen plenty of public relations fiascoes in my time. DNR's rollout of the yellow perch plan was the "New Coke" of fisheries management.

Recreational anglers attending the public meeting were security-wanded at the entrance, ringed by uniformed officers and then lectured by an overly defensive top-ranking DNR official about "Jeffersonian democracy."

Eyebrows were raised so high it looked like a comb-over convention. You didn't need Magic 8-Ball to tell you how badly things were going to turn out.

About the same time, the General Assembly considered but ultimately tabled a bill by Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Republican representing Harford and Cecil counties, to ban commercial fyke netting of yellow perch on the Bush River from Jan. 1 through March 20.

That same DNR official testified against the bill, saying the agency had things under control and, besides, there were no more than a handful of nets stretched across the river.

His assertion was immediately contradicted by Baltimore County waterman Danny Beck, a twice-convicted fish poacher, who testified that he had at least 40 nets in the river.

After the legislative session ended, that same DNR official went fishing with Beck, one of three watermen who pleaded guilty last year to poaching 22,000 pounds of yellow perch from the waters off Aberdeen Proving Ground.

It's no wonder CCA doesn't trust the department.

Into that molten gob of ill will steps new DNR Secretary John Griffin, a 15-year agency veteran who knows his way around a crisis, but is just getting his feet under him after seven years in exile.

A meeting between CCA and Griffin on Monday "failed to produce any substantive change in the department's yellow perch management policies," according to the group, which asked state Sen. Roy Dyson to file the Yellow Perch Conservation Act of 2007.

Says CCA president Bill Curry: "The time for discussion is over."

Commercial yellow perch fishermen number fewer than 40 but are responsible for up to 95 percent of the total catch. Recreational anglers are limited to five fish a day, if they can find any.

Commercially caught fish don't end up in markets here because local taste buds aren't wild for the flavor and the fish are a pain to prepare. The bulk of the catch goes to markets in the Midwest, where commercial fishermen have been barred from chasing yellow perch to protect a dwindling population.

But the Maryland yellow perch population isn't doing handsprings, either. While a few rivers are doing OK, traditional hot spots such as the Magothy, Patapsco, Severn, South and West rivers remain closed under a management plan approved in 2002.

Yet to lay all the blame at the feet of watermen is unfair. Rampant development has fouled many places that used to provide havens for spawning yellow perch. One fish's nursery is a human's waterfront vacation home. The same waterborne runoff and crud that produce sores on fish, kills oysters and may help deplete the menhaden stock surely do a number on yellow perch, too.

In their haste to act, the well-meaning members of CCA wrapped their arms around a nasty piece of work that's badly written. Three things jump out.

First is the self-serving opening paragraph that claims, in part, that recreational fishermen are asking for this ban because of their concern for the economic future of Maryland's watermen.

What a bunch of flapdoodle. Recreational anglers pretending to worry about watermen is like Boston Red Sox fans fretting over Alex Rodriguez's mental state.

The second piece of bunk in SB 702 calls out DNR for its "questionable science-based policies" but then raises questions of allocation, not science. If the bill's backers want to argue allocation, they should argue allocation. If they want to argue science, they should show their science cards.

The third hunk of hooey is language that would require DNR, in consultation with "stakeholders" (e.g., CCA), to spend money the agency doesn't have to produce an economic and environmental study for the General Assembly, which will put it on the same dusty shelf as all the other studies.

If CCA wants a study, it should be willing to go to the mat for a specified sum to carry it out. To demand a study but ignore DNR's precarious financial state is loopy.

Few groups have invested as much in the future of yellow perch as CCA. Volunteers have spent thousands of hours standing in icy waters to rip out obstructions to spawning grounds, count egg sacs, stock fingerlings and restore streams and creeks.

Its members have every reason to be weary and wary of yet another governor and DNR management team.

But Griffin and his new deputy, Eric Schwaab, the former fisheries chief, aren't Ron Franks and Ron Guns, the departed braintrust. And Curry and Lewis of CCA aren't power-grabbing crazies.

"John's inherited a mess," a sympathetic Curry said. "Fisheries issues don't belong at the State House. You give me another option than 702 and I'll take it."

The door is open. Someone at DNR needs to take the first step.

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