DNR perch policies show lack of knowledge as to how market works

The yellow perch tag issue in the article "Priming the market for perch on the plate" (March 2013) is far more complicated than Tony Friedrich of the Coastal Conservation Association acknowledged. Tags are the direct result of complaints by recreational and sport fishing organizations that the commercial industry was taking too many fish. Basing their complaints on their own "scientists," those groups raised such a hue and cry that the Maryland Department of Natural Resources knuckled under, forcing watermen to tag each and every dead yellow perch and each crate of live fish shipped to market.

Oddly enough, the CCA lobby did not push for their own fishermen to tag fish. They can take fish no smaller than 9 inches with no maximum size. Commercial fisherman are limited to perch no smaller than 8.5 inches or larger than 11 inches.

The commercial fishermen have to call in to report when they go out to fish and fill out daily catch reports declaring the numbers caught. Recreational fishermen do not. If the state is looking for complete accountability, it should not allow any user group the luxury of not calling, reporting or tagging their catch.

Fish found above the "spawn line" in the reivers cannot be harvested commercially, but they can be caught by the recreational fishermen.

Closing the Nanticoke and Choptank to commercial yellow perch harvests was also a "must" for the CCA. The state closed these tributaries to commercial fishing for a five-year study to determine the risk to the health of the stock. More than five years later, and despite finding that the perch were not in any danger of collapse, the two rivers remain closed to commercial harvesting.

Once the regulations and closures were in place, the yellow perch fishery took a 40 percent reduction. When a fishery is this significantly affected, its markets go somewhere else and rarely come back. Why should the buyers run the risk of the state closing the fishery again?

For many years, the Midwest has been and is still the main market for Maryland's yellow perch. Midwest markets do not want to hire workers whose sole job is to remove tags from yellow perch. These markets have started to drift away from Maryland to Canadian suppliers, who do not have to use tags.

In trying to recover management costs, the state tried charging the watermen 9 cents a tag and made them buy tags in lots of 500. It takes, on the average, two or three fish to make a pound. The waterman would have lost 27 cents (three tags) per pound before the fish even went to the buyer. Yellow perch average between $1.25 cents and $2 per pound on the dead market and up to $3 a pound on the live market. This quickly adds up to a serious amount of money. Unused tags are returned with no reimbursement. 

When Del. Jay Jacobs confronted the DNR about the tag cost, it was lowered to 2 cents per tag the next day. What is the mindset within the DNR that would allow them to think they could charge 7 cents more per tag than was spent on making them? 

The crowing by Steve Vilnit, the DNR's seafood marketing specialist, about this year's high prices reflects the scarcity of yellow perch early in the season. The numbers were few and the weather so bad that the DNR extended the season a week to give watermen a chance to eke out an income between oyster and crab season.

Vilnit's thinking that most watermen will sacrifice even a small part of their larger Midwest markets for the chance — and extra work — of trying to sell to a small localized niche market indicates a lack of understanding about how fish markets work. The limited number of restaurants likely to serve yellow perch would likely not be enough to support the effort by watermen. It is a regional preference.

Having lived in Michigan for 12 years, I know firsthand that the mass market for white and yellow perch is in the Midwest.

Recently, the DNR raised the annual seafood market fee for watermen from $10 a year to $50 a year. If this is an example of DNR marketing strategies, watermen should demand their money back.

Marc Castelli
Chestertown, MD

Commentary misrepresents job losses at Omega Protein

A recent commentary published by the Bay Journal,"Omega Protein makes good on threat to cut jobs; but it doesn't have to," (April 2013) significantly misrepresents my views on Omega Protein and recent job losses in the fishery. Quotes attributed to my conversation with the author, Alison Fairbrother, are taken out of context to the point of leaving a false impression.

Fairbrother argues that recent layoffs by Omega Protein are unnecessary, quoting me in reference to a previous instance when the company decommissioned a boat, but did not need to reduce its workforce. But that situation was very different than the one currently unfolding. The boat had been decommissioned in favor of a newer, safer one that had not yet been delivered because of shipyard delays. In that case, the reduction of the fleet was temporary, whereas now, the new quotas make it impossible to keep the fleet at its present size.

Fairbrother also fundamentally misrepresents how recent layoffs at the company unfolded. Omega Protein never "threatened" job losses. Reducing our operations became necessary to remain viable under new regulations from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

As a vice president of the union representing menhaden fishermen, UFCW Local 400, and a fisherman myself, I played a major role in how the plant is being restructured. I worked one-on-one with Omega's director of fishing operations, Monty Deihl, to ensure that we preserved as many jobs as possible. Every worker who was let go was also offered a job at one of Omega's Gulf facilities, with the option to return to Reedville, VA, when openings occurred.

No one involved in the menhaden fishery wanted the layoffs to happen, but we were forced to work with the hand that we were dealt. They're the direct result of ASMFC management decisions, based on findings that the commission itself has publicly recognized are uncertain.

The UFCW continues to see that our workers are taken care of, and Omega Protein has worked diligently with us to stay in business and continue to provide employment in our community.

Ken Pinkard
Vice president, UFCW Local 400