- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 26, 2006

Upon questioning hard-core sport fishermen, you will find many have serious reservations about some of the work done by state fisheries biologists, who are paid to manage our fish stocks. Some of those fishermen are saying, in essence, “Biologists don’t know what they’re talking about,” a belief for which the biologists — scientists, if you please — have only themselves and political expediency to blame.

Recent incidents in Maryland and Virginia might lend some validity to all this.

It began with Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources deciding perhaps the time had come to open a commercial yellow perch fishery in the Eastern Shore’s Nanticoke and Choptank rivers. This was challenged immediately by sport anglers who — having only anecdotal evidence to go by — wondered how the DNR’s biologists came up with the numbers to justify removing perch by the thousands without any real oversight. (Maryland’s Natural Resources Police is spread so thin, it hardly can be asked to watch commercial operators day and night.)

There also have been a number of questions raised about Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and how its scientists come up with bass population numbers that are widely doubted and challenged by sport fishermen.

In the case of Maryland’s sudden “discovery” that the Choptank and Nanticoke rivers are virtually overrun with huge numbers of yellow perch — while the state’s other tidal rivers are anything but — the Southern Maryland chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association used the Public Information Act to inquire how the DNR came up with its numbers and how it could have misjudged the tremendous outpouring of distrust and rejection its plan generated.

The PIA request revealed that DNR fisheries director Howard King sent an e-mail to a staffer March 10, 2004, requesting a position paper for opening the Choptank and Nanticoke rivers to commercial yellow perch harvest and under what conditions this would be supportable. King specified the paper should be science-based but also should include the socio-economic, political and public relations impacts as well.

King also requested an evaluation brief for a recreational allowance on certain western Chesapeake rivers currently closed to perch fishing.

King eventually was told there was no credible way to estimate the commercial effort and no rigorous statistical model for population size in the Nanticoke, which should have ended any plan for commercial fishing in that river.

King also was given an estimate (some called it pure guesswork) of the Choptank River’s yellow perch population. He was told it had grown more than three-fold and possibly as much as 530 percent. Fishing options and cautions were exchanged because it would raise questions when word got out there would be no daily limit on the commercial catch in the two rivers but that any recreational angler looking for perch would be restricted to five a day. The DNR’s Fisheries Service said it had sampled yellow perch and that “indices of abundance increased 530 percent through 2005.”

All this was news to sport anglers, whose anecdotal fishing evidence suggested this was a fairy tale. They nudged each other and said, “See? They’re making up numbers and hope the public will buy it.” It now turns out that recreational anglers might have a point.

When a biologist says a fish population has increased 530 percent but can’t really tell you how that compares to figures 20, 40 or 50 years ago, how valid are the numbers? And how often have sport fishermen been misled in years gone by?

Clearly, in the case of the Maryland DNR’s fisheries plans, something smells — and it’s not a rotten fish. It’s something else, but don’t expect Gov. Robert Ehrlich to step in. He’s in favor of fish netters and ignoring the worries of the recreational community.

In Virginia, meanwhile, a different scenario is being played out. After many months of tedious work, the state’s fisheries biologists say there is an ample supply of largemouth bass in the tidal James, Chickahominy and Rappahannock rivers. A group called Concerned Bass Anglers of Virginia, meanwhile, spent its hard-earned money stocking the Chickahominy River near Williamsburg with half a million fingerling bass because they say the presence of bass is woefully inadequate.

In the tidal Rappahannock, we keep hearing that good numbers of bass are present, yet when we fish in all the haunts that used to give us astonishing numbers of quality fish, it’s like casting lures into a watery desert. No bass or, at best, few are seen.

Look for Gene Mueller’s Outdoors column Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: [email protected]

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