- The Washington Times - Monday, September 24, 2007

ANNAPOLIS (AP) — A fish so common that anglers once called it “the people”s fish” has inspired years of fiery debate between recreational and professional fishermen, and now Maryland authorities are planning to step into the fray.

The state”s Fisheries Service plans a hearing tomorrow to listen to both sides discuss the yellow perch, a striped fish less than a foot long at full size.

Hobbyists complain that the fish is being hogged by professionals who use large hoop nets — called fyke nets — to scoop up perch in the late winter and early spring as the fish head up Maryland”s tributaries to spawn.

The harvesting advocates counter that the yellow-perch stock is healthy and that more limits on them will add another restriction to an already troubled industry.

“It has nothing to do with how healthy the stock is, but who gets it,” said Larry Simns, head of the Maryland Watermen”s Association.

The yellow perch debate goes back years. Recreational fishermen have long pushed for limits on commercial fishing, while the state Department of Natural Resources tried to negotiate a middle ground.

The conflict grew heated last year when the agency”s Fisheries Service suggested lifting an 18-year-old moratorium on commercial fishing of yellow perch in two Eastern Shore rivers, the Choptank and the Nanticoke.

Hobbyists loudly opposed the change, saying those rivers are one of the few places left where recreational fishermen have a fair shot at getting yellow perch.

“Historically on the Eastern Shore, fishermen would be standing shoulder to shoulder catching yellow perch,” said Robert Glenn, executive director of the Maryland chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association, a fishing group that fought the lifting of the moratorium.

In areas where commercial fishermen are allowed to use their nets, Mr. Glenn said, “They don’t allow recreational fishermen a fair chance.”

Years ago, he said, yellow perch were much more plentiful for hobbyists.

“We used to call it the people’s fish,” Mr. Glenn said. “A lot of people got started fishing with yellow perch, standing on the side of a tributary. You didn’t need a lot of expensive equipment.”

Mike Benjamin, a charter boat captain out of North East, Md., said he’s seen early-spring fishermen for yellow perch disappear.

“Used to be, it was a nice day, you’d take the kids out to a stream, the yellow perch were easy to catch,” he said. “That doesn’t happen anymore.”

After a deluge of complaints from recreational fishermen about the Eastern Shore proposal, the natural resources agency backed off the ides and kept the Choptank and Nanticoke off-limits to the professionals. Fearing still more attempts to help commercial fishermen, the recreational anglers lobbied for a new law passed this year requiring the agency to curb the commercial harvest of yellow perch.

The law requires the agency to protect the perch migration to “historical spawning rivers and streams,” directing agency officials to prohibit commercial fishermen from scooping up too many of the fish before hobbyists get their chance.

The yellow perch commercial business is relatively small. Last year, 23,752 pounds with a value of $39,666 were harvested during January, February and March. Mr. Simns said fewer than 100 people catch yellow perch for sale.

Yellow perch isn’t very popular on Maryland menus, so much of the harvest heads to the Great Lakes region, where the fish is commonly served at fish fries or on fried-fish sandwiches. Recreational anglers say it’s wrong to ship Chesapeake-regional fish to the Midwest for consumption.

Furthermore, recreational fishermen say, the yellow perch still has not rebounded to its historic levels after the population dipped in the 1970s.

“We talk all the time about saving the [Chesapeake] Bay, and that includes the creatures in the Bay,” Mr. Glenn said.

Watermen say they’ve been unfairly trampled by the hobbyists, who want to reserve the yellow perch for themselves. Given the new law, Mr. Simns said, hopes are dim that state officials will side with the professionals.

“We’ll probably get stepped on,” he said.

Howard King, head of the Maryland Fisheries Service, said that tensions are high on both sides but that Mr. Simns is right. The watermen will have to adjust to tighter regulations as their recreational rivals assert more influence.

“It seems as though they’re constantly being ratcheted back, but they’re competing for a limited resource and the world is changing,” Mr. King said.

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