The Ehrlich administration is proposing to end a 17-year moratorium on the commercial fishing of yellow perch in two Eastern Shore rivers - a proposal that is drawing criticism from environmentalists and recreational anglers who say the species is still scarce in Maryland waterways.
Department of Natural Resources officials want to open the Choptank and Nanticoke rivers to commercial yellow perch fishing beginning this spring. The Nanticoke has been closed to all yellow perch fishing since 1990; the Choptank has been open to recreational anglers since 1992.
DNR officials say they're following management plans that call for a balance between protecting the species and providing for a viable commercial fishery. They have asked a Republican legislator, state Sen. Nancy Jacobs of Harford County, to withdraw a bill aimed at protecting yellow perch from commercial harvesting in the Bush River in her area.
But critics say the financial gains for a few watermen are not reason enough to further imperil a fragile species that is still nowhere near its historic levels.
Sherman Baynard, an Eastern Shore angler and chairman of the fisheries committee for the Coastal Conservation Association, a recreational fishing group, said yellow perch are rare enough that his members seldom catch their five-fish limit. Some have never caught a yellow perch, he said.
"It looks like they might finally be turning the corner after 17 years of closure, and what do they do?" Baynard asked. "It's not abundant enough to give recreational anglers more fish, but it is abundant enough to let commercial fishermen come in and net spawning stock in large schools?"
Little market exists in Maryland these days for yellow perch, and much of the commercial catch is shipped to the Midwest. But the species was once abundant in tidal rivers and was known as the "first fish" because it spawns in late February or early March.
Yellow perch also were among the most accessible fish, because their schools swam to the banks where anglers could net them without a boat or fancy gear.
By the 1970s, the bony, striped species was in significant decline, and in the late 1980s DNR closed several rivers to all yellow perch fishing. Managers have reopened some rivers after testing indicated they could support a fishery.
That's all DNR is trying to do in the Choptank and the Nanticoke, said fisheries manager Harley Speir.
"If you look at the management plan, it does provide for reopening fisheries when we believe that fisheries can be maintained and sustained safely," Speir said.
But a DNR yellow perch report completed last spring said there would be no "credible method" to project the effects that commercial nets - which can snare thousands of fish - would have on the yellow perch in the Choptank. The report had less information about the Nanticoke.
DNR has not put out nets to study the Nanticoke's population, instead relying on commercial watermen to help the agency with its sampling.
Speir acknowledged that the watermen helping with the sampling "do have an interest" in opening the fishery, and that employing them opens the department to accusations of bias.
While Speir was dealing with the yellow perch issue in the two Shore rivers, other DNR officials were working to stop Jacobs from pursuing legislation to protect the species in the Bush River.
Jacobs, a Republican who lives along the Bush River in Harford County, introduced a bill Feb. 1 at the behest of her neighbors and other fishermen in her area to stop commercial fishermen from putting their nets in the river after winter begins, then taking them out in late March.
Jacobs said the commercial fishermen were following the letter of the law - which forbids fishing from Jan. 1 to March 20 - but not the spirit.
About a week after she introduced the legislation, Jacobs said, she received a visit from DNR officials.
"They came in and tried to talk me out of it," said Jacobs, whose bill is headed for a hearing Feb. 28. She said she would not withdraw the legislation.
"I personally feel that, if yellow perch are getting more and more scarce all the time, we need to do whatever we have to do to protect them," Jacobs said.
DNR Assistant Secretary Mike Slattery said three officials approached Jacobs because, on principle, they want fishery issues to be regulated by scientists, not by legislators.
"We don't believe that natural resource management should be legislated," Slattery said.
Larry Jennings, a Silver Spring fisherman who has spent the past several winters wading deep in streams to count egg sacs and clear blockages in hopes of helping the agency restore yellow perch, saw the DNR visit differently.
"It's shocking," Jennings said. "DNR's tendency, with any fish in the bay, is to allow the maximum amount of exploitation, short of population collapse."
DNR is seeking comments on the Choptank and Nanticoke proposals until Tuesday. Since the comment period began last month, more than 100 recreational fishermen have packed two public meetings - one in Annapolis and the other in Cambridge - to testify against opening the rivers to commercial fisheries.
About a dozen watermen have turned out to support an end to the moratorium.
Maryland Watermen's Association President Larry Simns said he has discouraged members from attending the hearings to avoid a confrontation with the recreational anglers, a prospect that led state officials to post several police officers outside both meetings.
But Simns said the issue is important to his members; they have been lobbying DNR to lift yellow perch restrictions for three years.
About 40 commercial yellow perch fishermen remain in the state, and a reopened fishery in those two rivers wouldn't bring them more than $20,000.
The DNR report estimates even less - about $6,750 for the Choptank, assuming a 5,000-pound harvest. But Simns said every little bit helps as watermen struggle through a winter of scarce oysters before an uncertain spring of crabbing.
"If it's a thousand dollars to a person, that gets them through the spring," he said.