Poaching threatens yellow perch in Lake Erie, state says
Written by The Columbus Dispatch   
Wednesday, 07 March 2007 04:26

In the early 1990s, overfishing nearly wiped out the yellow perch in the Great Lakes. But catch limits imposed by the state helped the perch make a comeback in Lake Erie. Or did they?

A poaching scandal has raised doubts among state wildlife officials and lawmakers about the perch population and the system in place to safeguard it.

At stake is a portion of the $1.8 billion fish tourism industry along Lake Erie, said Kevin Ramsey, wildlife law-enforcement supervisor for the lake.

The lake draws thousands of central Ohio anglers eager to catch perch, walleye and other species common in sport fishing.

"Any abuse just can’t be tolerated," said Ramsey, who works for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

Commercial fishermen say the state is exaggerating the problem. But Ramsey said overfishing still threatens the perch.

"You could have the collapse of the fisheries," he said. "If that happens, everyone will be scratching their heads and pointing their fingers."

Twelve commercial fishing companies hold 18 state licenses that allow them to haul in hundreds of tons of perch a year for sale in restaurants and grocery stores. These companies share the lake with thousands of recreational anglers who buy seasonal permits.

Overfishing, invasive species and poor fish hatches nearly killed out the fish in the early 1990s. Catch limits for commercial and sport fishermen, however, have helped, the state said.

Last year, Ohio placed a 2,238-ton limit on sport fishing and a 1,504-ton limit on commercial fishing. Sport fishermen are limited to 40 perch a day.

Ramsey said the state began investigating poaching in 2002, when wildlife officials spent months watching commercial boats unload more fish than they reported catching.

In 2005, 14 licensed fishermen, two fishing companies and three fish wholesalers were indicted on charges of violating catch limits. All together, the group was accused of taking in 40 tons over quotas.

Ray Petering, Ohio’s administrator of fish management, said accurate catch figures are essential. "If we can’t trust the numbers, then we can’t manage the lake," he said.

State lawmakers are also concerned. In December, they debated a bill that would have shut down Ohio’s commercial fishing on the lake.

It did not pass.

A bill introduced two weeks ago by Sen. Timothy J. Grendell, a Chesterland Republican, would triple the companies’ annual fees and make them install satellite tracking devices on their boats.

An annual fee required to operate 20 nets on the lake, for example, would increase from $800 to $2,400.

Grendell said the extra money would help the state hire more agents to enforce fishing limits.

The bill also would revoke licenses from companies convicted of felony poaching. Companies with three nonfelony violations in 10 years also would lose their licenses.

"We want legitimate fishing within limits," Grendell said. "This will give (the Department of Natural Resources) the ability to do that."

Some commercial fishermen say the Department of Natural Resources has exaggerated the threat to the yellow perch.

"It’s all a bunch of hooey," said Frank Reynolds, owner of Reynolds Fishery Co., which fishes out of Sandusky Bay.

Ken King, owner of King Fishery Co., which fishes out of Lorain and Ashtabula, said it’s not hard to go over the limit.

King, Reynolds and their companies were not involved in poaching.

Ten individuals and four companies were convicted in those cases, mostly on misdemeanor charges. They were fined more than $350,000. Charges against four people were dropped.

Though Petering says the state’s perch population is at risk of overfishing, King points out that Ohio’s total catch limits for perch have increased steadily since 2001, despite poaching.

The total allowable catch for sport and commercial anglers has more than doubled from 1,522 tons in 2001 to 3,742 tons in 2006.

Reynolds said the state unfairly favors the sport-fishing industry and that the bill is an attempt to drive commercial fishermen out of business.

"They are stretching this so far out of proportion," he said.

But Petering said inaccurate reports of commercial catches remain a threat to perch.

"We are not talking in terms of extinction," he said. "But you could certainly put it into a condition where the fishery is nowhere near as good as it could be."
 
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