Time for a new favorite fish?

Now that poachers have temporarily closed rockfish harvest, let's eat yellow perch

February 12, 2011

Rockfish, or striped bass, holds a treasured place in Marylanders' hearts and palates. It, along with the black-eyed Susan, the skipjack and the diamondback terrapin, serves as a symbol of our state. It swims in our waters. It tastes really good.

So the news this month that Department of Natural Resources Police had pulled up almost 3 miles of illegally anchored gill nets that had trapped thousands of rockfish near Kent Island was a shocker. The illegal catch was so large — some 10 tons, almost fulfilling the allowed catch for the month — that Maryland officials rightly closed the February harvest in the bay. A $10,000 reward has been offered for information leading to conviction of the poachers who set the nets.

No arrests have been made. Some of the confiscated fish were donated to charities and soup kitchens; others were sold to wholesalers for $2.50 a pound, with the proceeds going to purchase law enforcement equipment.

Despite the halt in Maryland's commercial catch, there is no shortage as wild rockfish caught in Virginia and other nearby states fill the void. Farm-raised hybrids are plentiful. Moreover, the wave of $2.50-a-pound fish has moved through the market without noticeably lowering the retail price. Finally, area restaurant chefs report no increase in interrogations from their customers as to whether the fish they serve is either local or legal. In fact, starting next week and running until the end of the month, a number of downtown restaurants are participating in a rockfish celebration, preparing it in various styles — everything from beer-battered rockfish fritters to a rockfish club sandwich to a rockfish salad.

Still, I wondered if there might be time to sample another local favorite fish, a backup, if you will, to the storied rockfish winter dinner. That led me to the yellow perch and to Anthony Conrad. Mr. Conrad not only runs his family's retail seafood operation in Parkville, he also has a commercial fishing license.

Mr. Conrad catches fish. Recently, he has been catching and selling yellow perch. These fish are not as big as a rockfish; they are pan size. They are usually cooked and served whole, a drawback since most fish eaters prefer boneless fillets. But from now until early March, they are in season. These days, the majority of the yellow perch are schooling up in the deeper waters of the bay, Mr. Conrad said. But soon they will make their run to shallower rivers and creeks. He will be waiting for them.

Veteran fishmongers such as Billy Isaac Martin, proprietor of Martin's wholesale seafood operation in Jessup, recall that 50 years ago yellow perch were popular, and that some of Baltimore's notable families — the Hutzlers and the Stieffs — had a fondness for the fish. He also recalled that yellow perch were very difficult to scale — you have to scale them backwards, he said. Nowadays, he said, he rarely sees yellow perch in the market.

Compared to the annual 2 million or so pounds of commercially caught rockfish in Maryland, the yellow perch fishery of 60,000 pounds is small fry. But Mr. Conrad touts the delectable flesh of the Maryland yellow perch: "They have such sweetness, they are among the best eating fish I know," he said.

After broiling a few for supper this week, I offer this verdict: sweeter than rock, but bonier.

—Rob Kasper

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