Burton on the Bay
By Bill Burton
Going to War over Yellow Perch
Never kick a man when he’s down. He might get up.
I first heard the above words from the late Talbott Denmead. Denmead, along with the late Dr. Reginald V. Truitt, is considered the father of the conservation/environmental movement in Maryland. While serving with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Talbott was the architect of laws that took black bass from commercial fishing; Dr. Truitt was the founder of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory at Solomons.
Sportsfishermen had just won a minor victory in a netting controversy involving largemouth bass in the area of the Susquehanna Flats when I chatted with Talbott Denmead, who signed on with Maryland’s old Game and Inland Fish Commission after retiring from Fish and Wildlife. I was a young outdoor columnist for the Baltimore Sunpapers at the time, and I suggested fisheries managers should go for the knockout, cracking down hard on any netting of black bass.
Talbot was a sage old man with many years of experience behind him on that evening more than 40 years ago. “That’s not the way you do it,” is the way he put it to me. “Never kick a man when he’s down. He might get up.”
Talbott then added words to the effect that science must rule and ruling takes time. Only then with not only law and science but also public opinion on your side can you score.
Science and the law are the first steps in making a ruling that sticks. Compliance in the long run depends on the public’s perception and adherence. After all, what good is a law if it’s importance isn’t understood and few abide by it?
It’s easy to rant ’n’ rave. Former House of Representatives Speaker Sam Rayburn summed up the value of ranting ’n’ raving:
A jackass can kick a barn door down, but it takes a carpenter to build one, he said.
I think of the Speaker’s words and those of Talbott Denmead as I look back on the recent controversy surrounding Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ initiative to open the Choptank River to commercial fishing of yellow perch while also opening the Nanticoke to both commercial and recreational fishing for yellow neds.
Here’s how that decision was made:
Natural Resources took the advice of all the biologists of the yellow perch program in determining that the rivers could be opened for both sports and commercial fisheries without damaging stocks and the full comeback of the perch fishery. The Choptank was already open to sports but not commercial perchin’; the Nanticoke had been closed for sports and commercial fishing since the late 1980s.
Then Natural Resources set cautious guidelines for commercial fishing of yellow perch in the reopened rivers. To conserve the species, most large spawning females would be safe as only fish measuring between eight-and-one-half and 11 inches could be caught. Most commercially fished perch are caught in fyke nets, which don’t suffocate the fish, meaning those released would survive. No netting would be allowed at the peak of the season. To guarantee no harm came to the species, the department set a close watch over netting operations and vowed that the program would be dropped if it proved detrimental to stocks.
They anticipated a commercial catch no larger than 5,000 pounds.
Then the you-know-what hit the fan. As the controversy raged, I saw the jackasses kick the barn door down, but I saw no carpenters to rebuild it.
For ages, recreational and organized anglers have demanded management based on science. But when the opinion of scientists did not coincide with their beliefs, the two biggest fishing organizations dismissed science to play on the emotions of sports fishermen.
You’d have thought the department had opened rockfishing to dynamiting. The amateur biologists in the Coastal Conservation Association and Maryland Saltwater Sports Fisherman’s Association went ballistic; overnight they became authorities on yellow perch management.
The Conservation Association started things off with fighting words: Natural Resources “seeks an increase in commercial exploitation of vulnerable yellow perch,” they wrote. “DNR just doesn’t get it. … They continue to manage yellow perch for commercial netters and could care less about the needs of recreational anglers.”
Not to be outdone, Maryland Saltwater Sports Fisherman’s Association shrieked about the department’s “flawed” and “ill-conceived” plan, predicting the agency “faced losing credibility with the recreational fishing community if it persisted in pushing the proposal.”
“The numbers don’t support such intense commercial fishing pressure,” said Rich Novotny, the Association’s executive director.
Under that pressure, the public didn’t sign on.
Without public consensus, DNR withdrew the plan. The status quo will hold on both rivers, and the species management plan will be reconsidered.
But that wasn’t the end of the war. Immediately after the withdrawal, Maryland Saltwater Sports Fisherman’s Association communications director C.D. Dollar penned a kick-’em-when-they’re-down news release gloating over the victory.
I’ve only been in this business going on 60 years, but over that time I’ve noted that when different sides have the same goal, though with some disagreements, conciliatory responses are in order. I-told-you-so’s don’t do the job. Where are we heading when the state’s two foremost fishing groups attack the agency charged with implementing the wise use of our resources?
Both organizations preach conservation, so I find it curious that the latter not too long ago decided to advance its annual rockfish tournament, bringing out some 700 boats at the peak of the rockfish spawning season, when the progenitors of the species are most vulnerable. It pulled back this year only when Natural Resources ruled no tournaments before May 1 to give the fish a break.
We need fewer jackasses, more carpenters. Enough said.