- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 12, 2006

John Odenkirk and Bob Greenlee, biologists with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, took exception to my Feb. 26 column, which was critical of the way some biologists gather and present information.

I can’t say I blame the men for feeling that way.

The column primarily dealt with Maryland’s tidal water biologists and how the Maryland division of the Coastal Conservation Association discovered through the use of the Public Information Act that somebody at the state’s DNR might have been a little too generous with yellow perch estimates, in one instance claiming the Choptank River’s yellow perch numbers had increased 530 percent over a number of years. That, of course, elicited a unanimous cry of horse hockey from CCA leaders and members.

Upon reflection and to Greenlee’s and Odenkirk’s dismay, I added Virginia to the list in which sport anglers question their scientists’ estimates of fish populations.

After all, here had been an incident in which a private group of fishermen, the Concerned Bass Anglers of Virginia (CBAV), stocked the Chickahominy River near Williamsburg with a large number of largemouth bass fingerlings because they said there was no discernable presence of bass in this tidal river.

The Virginia biologists immediately disagreed. Although there were year-class spawning failures in 1999 and 2000 because of persistent regional droughts, Odenkirk and Greenlee point out that since the drought broke in 2002, consistent recruitment has occurred in tidal river bass populations. During electro-fishing tests, young-of-the-year and one-year-old fish dominated the catch of largemouth bass during the river surveys (71 percent in the Chickahominy, 68 percent in the James, 81 percent in the lower tidal Rappahannock and 63 percent in the upper tidal Rappahannock).

In other words, Greenlee and Odenkirk said the bass had made a huge comeback.

Said Odenkirk in an e-mail to me: “I guess the worst part for me was [your] implication that we’re not being truthful with anglers and/or making numbers up — very bad things indeed. It begins to get personal at some point.”

Odenkirk also complained that the headline of my column (“Biologists’ numbers are in question”) suggested, by adding Virginia into the mix with Maryland, that Virginia’s numbers and summary findings were flawed.

“In the first two paragraphs, no distinction was made between Virginia and Maryland,” Odenkirk wrote. “Both states [were] treated equally. Obviously, I cannot comment on an issue in Maryland, but in Virginia I know we take great pride in managing our fishery resources by the most professional means available and strive to conduct valid, scientifically sound studies that pass statistical muster and peer review.”

He added: “We have no problem with stocking a given species if the resource [including the ‘human dimension’ component] dictates that need. After all, we are stewards of the resource, and we have an obligation to our constituents [i.e., anglers] to provide the highest quality fishery possible given constraints of finances, habitat, species life history and other potentially limiting factors.”

What I had written originally was that there had been a number of questions raised about Virginia and how its scientists “come up with bass population numbers that are widely doubted and challenged by sport fishermen.” However, I also wrote: “After many months of tedious work, the state’s fisheries biologists say there’s an ample supply of largemouth bass in the [tidal rivers]. [The CBAV] spent its hard-earned money stocking the Chickahominy [because] they say the presence of bass is woefully inadequate.”

To that Odenkirk simply answered, “It serves us in no way [and] does us no good to have poor or sub-par fishing. We want you all to catch fish. What we do not want is to conduct management operations that are in direct conflict with published accounts [e.g., supplemental black bass stocking on wild populations] that could waste time and money. We are willing to experimentally stock to compensate for year class failures, and we are beginning to more fully understand the mechanisms at work in these systems.

“Suffice it to say that we took exception to the credibility and/or legitimacy you brought to CBAV while stripping us of the same. Whether it was your intention or not, many of your readers will probably now doubt what we tell them.”

Said Greenlee: “In no way have Virginia biologists been claiming that there have not been issues in our state’s tidal river largemouth bass fisheries. [However,] what we have been seeing in the past two years [or three, depending on the river] is outstanding natural reproduction in these tidal largemouth bass populations. The number of bass in these fisheries is set to increase dramatically over the next couple of years.”

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

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