- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 30, 2004

Whenever fish populations plummet, it is easy to lament the occasion and recall the “good old days,” back when things were better. Usually, that’s where it stays. In certain isolated cases, this is true even among government officials in charge of our fisheries as they cite a lack of funds or the necessity of taking care of more pressing business.

In the Washington area, however, there is a group of angler/conservationists who do not stand by idly when things look bad.

In the case of ever declining numbers of yellow perch, for example, they’ve stepped up to do something about it. Despite some claims that local yellow perch populations are returning and are in good shape, they don’t believe it. The fish that normally greets tidal water fishermen during some of the earliest spawning runs of any fish species — late February and early March — in some waters has been strangely absent in recent years.

For example, a popular Wicomico River spot known as Allen’s Fresh in southern Charles County has seen massive spawning runs of yellow perch over the years. However, in the past two years Allen’s Fresh was a watery wasteland as far as perch runs were concerned. Is poor water quality to blame, or commercial overfishing, or both?

The same holds true for other erstwhile spawning waters, including a number of creeks in St. Mary’s County where a goodly number of people live who are members of the Coastal Conservation Association’s Southern Maryland chapter. These CCA activists several years ago chose to make the return of the yellow perch their personal project — almost a battle cry of sorts. They weren’t going to wait until someone else did the work. No, these folks were willing to invest time, money and intense labor to restore the perch. No cheap talk here.

The CCA, in cooperation with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and a local power generating company, is propagating yellow perch from fertilized eggs collected in local streams. Professional DNR biologists at the Manning Hatchery in Cedarville take the egg strands, incubate and mark them with a nonharming chemical — oxy-tetracyclene — for future identification. After they’re stocked in local waters, it is hoped a genetic imprint takes effect on the baby perch. When fully grown and having left their new home waters, perhaps they’ll return to spawn.

After being helped by the DNR’s Manning Hatchery people, the hatched larvae now being ready for transport, the CCA members carry the tiny hatchlings to two special rearing ponds at Mirant’s Chalk Point Generating Station along the tidal Patuxent River. There the perch grow to about 1 inches under the watchful eye of Timothy Klares, Mirant’s resident environmental specialist.

Why does an electric company care about raising fish that eventually will be turned loose? It’s good public relations and a replenishment of sorts for fish that might have been trapped in water intake equipment at the power station. Under tightly controlled conditions, Mirant’s Klares now is raising fish species, including sturgeons that one day will swim free in local waters, perhaps to spawn again in our rivers, bringing back the days when sturgeons were plentiful in Maryland and Virginia.

Recently, on a warm Saturday morning, CCA members from Charles, St. Mary’s, Calvert and Prince George’s counties came to Chalk Point to seine two rearing ponds and remove their young perch so they could be stocked in St. Leonard’s Creek and McIntosh Run in St. Mary’s County.

Before the day ended, nearly 80,000 perch fry were removed by men and women who waded waist-deep in pond water, dragging a fine-mesh seine and lovingly transferring them to a holding tank mounted on a flatbed truck.

With the tanker truck leading the way from Chalk Point, a caravan of vehicles soon headed into St. Mary’s County where the baby perch, now believed to be strong enough to survive, were released through a long plastic tube that was attached to the bottom of the tank, the other end held by club member Warren Brown who saw the tiny perch enter their new home, swim about aimlessly, then slowly disperse.

While most of the Southern Maryland CCA chapter members are deeply involved with the yellow perch restoration project, chapter member Ken Hastings is the driving, cajoling, always hopeful force behind the tremendous amount of work that is required with such projects.

“He’s an inspiration to all of us,” said CCA member Bob Rice.

Regarding the perch, Rice said, “Eventually, when we do sample seinings and find perch with the chemical markings, it will prove that what we’ve done has worked.”

Stream samples earlier this year proved that some of the previously stocked perch returned. It is hoped that many more happy returns are on the way.

Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column every Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: gmueller@washingtontimes.com.

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