As the yellow perch begin their spawning runs up Chesapeake Bay tributaries, the state is set to implement regulations to protect the species from overfishing while giving recreational anglers a greater share of the annual allocation.
The rules, developed over the past year after pressure from the General Assembly, will take effect Monday.
"I think we made a lot of progress," said Tom O'Connell, head of the Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service. "We learned that we have to be more conservative in management to allow the population to sustain itself and grow in time."
For many anglers, yellow perch are the year's first catch, from liquid waters and those covered with a frozen cap. Many children learn the sport while casting for the golden fish with the bold vertical black stripes.
The population went into steep decline in the late 1970s. 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.
Fisheries managers responded in 1989 by closing 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.
The Choptank was reopened to anglers in 1992, but the DNR's proposal in 2006 to open the Choptank and Nanticoke to commercial fishing was roundly criticized by anglers, who took their concerns to the General Assembly. Lawmakers passed a bill requiring that the 95 percent to 5 percent divvying of the annual catch in favor of the watermen be brought closer to a 50-50 split.
Under the new regulations, the recreational season is year-round. Anglers in tidal waters will be allowed to catch 10 fish daily, a doubling of the limit, with a nine-inch minimum size. Freshwater areas will have no number or size restrictions. All areas closed to yellow perch fishing will re-open.
The commercial season will run Jan. 1 through March 10 and include the Patapsco River, once off limits. The annual total commercial harvest is 47,350 pounds, which is divided into three areas: the Chesapeake Bay north of the Bay Bridge, except the Magothy River (38,000 pounds); the Chester River (6,800 pounds); and the Patuxent River (2,550 pounds). In the past, the commercial fleet routinely exceeded 100,000 pounds annually.
Watermen, who number about 40 in the case of yellow perch, will have to apply for a yellow perch permit by Oct. 31 each year to be given an allocation. Each fish caught must be tagged, and watermen must report their catch daily. Penalties run from a single-day to a yearlong suspension.
Leaders of the commercial industry and recreational anglers praised DNR's work and pledged to cooperate with biologists to improve the regulations as needed.
"It's a limited harvest, but [DNR] has the science to back it up," said Larry Simns, head of the Maryland Watermen's Association. "I think it's fair and equitable. It's got the transparency everyone wanted."
Simns said the tagging requirement poses a burden on watermen.
"At three fish to a pound, it's very tedious and time consuming," he explained. "But we live in different times. If we want to stay in the fishery, we know we're going to have to do things differently."
Scott McGuire, the legislative liaison for Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, said his group believes the new regulations "could be better, but we're committed to working with the department to improve them in 2010."
Specifically, he said, CCA would like an assessment done of the yellow perch population in the Patuxent River and further study of where in bay tributaries watermen are allowed to set their nets.
Critics have complained that it will cost the agency $20,000 to manage a commercial industry that generates about $120,000 in annual revenue.
But O'Connell said the amount "is not out of line" to protect the species while allowing access to commercial and recreational fishing.
"We've set a standard for other species," he said. "It's a case study that clearly identified the responsibility of DNR and stakeholders in the process. We may have to make adjustments, but we have established the way to do that. Was it worth it? Time will tell, but I'll say it was."