Plan could reopen tributaries for yellow perch fishing

The Baltimore Sun

Chesapeake Bay tributaries in the Baltimore area closed 20 years ago to protect the dwindling yellow perch population might soon be opened to recreational anglers under a blueprint being prepared by state natural resources officials.

The proposal, more than 10 years in the making, is a series of mix-and-match options for anglers and commercial fishermen that covers season length, size of catch and which waterways should remain closed. The plan is in its final days of drafting, with representatives of the recreational and commercial communities weighing in. A public comment period begins next month.

Fisheries Director Tom O'Connell acknowledged that the proposal is complex, with decisions on one aspect of the regulations affecting the others, but he expressed confidence that his staff can balance the competing interests of recreational anglers and watermen while keeping the yellow perch population from being overfished again.

Recreational and commercial leaders are guardedly optimistic this effort might end the conflict.

Bob Evans, an official with the Maryland Watermen's Association, said the Department of Natural Resources has "a plan that we can live with. I'd rather have a piece of the pie than no pie at all."

Ken Hastings, a member of the Maryland Coastal Conservation Association who leads the annual yellow perch spawning survey, said: "I think Tom [O'Connell] and his team are doing a bang-up job on this one. For the first time in a decade, I finally see the fisheries service facing the problems of resource management with something besides Band-Aids."

Anglers, who are allowed to keep five 9-inch fish daily, could see the limit doubled to 10 fish, with specific rivers designated for recreational fishing only. Watermen could see restrictions lifted from the Patapsco River along with a registration and tagging system similar to the one used for striped bass. Depending on the division of the total annual harvest with recreational anglers, their catch would range from 35,800 to 52,800 pounds; until recent restrictions, they used to average 50,000 pounds. (All of the options and maps will be posted online next week at

At one time, the yellow perch season - the earliest of the year - drew thousands of anglers who often stood shoulder to shoulder on riverbanks on frosty late-winter mornings. Watermen netted the golden fish with the black vertical stripes and shipped them to Midwestern markets that were left bare when the Great Lakes became overfished.

By the late 1970s, however, the population was in steep decline. In 1989, the DNR closed yellow perch fishing in many tributaries, including the Magothy, Patapsco, Severn, South and West rivers on the Western Shore and the Choptank and Nanticoke rivers on the Eastern Shore.

Anglers blamed watermen, who placed their nets across tributaries used by spawning yellow perch in February and March. Watermen blamed development and runoff for spoiling some of the delicate ribbons of water that once served as perch nurseries.

The Choptank reopened to anglers in 1992, but a 2006 DNR proposal to open the Choptank and Nanticoke rivers to commercial fishing was roundly criticized by anglers, who took their concerns to the General Assembly.

State lawmakers passed a law last year requiring DNR to restore yellow perch and divide the catch more equitably between anglers and watermen. The agency responded in January with an emergency regulation that lopped off the two most productive weeks of the commercial season, reducing the annual harvest by more than half. DNR officials then began working with both sides on a compromise.

"We all would like to get back to where we once were," said Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. "You don't like being sick, but it's better than dying."

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