The last yellow perch in the Severn River

The Capital, April 26, 2008

It is a chilly, wet Monday afternoon in late March, as Allison Buckalew and Pierre Henkart pull in the fine mesh net trailing behind the boat. They have begun the annual Severn Riverkeeper Monitoring Program. Pierre and Allison are hoping to find at least one small yellow perch fry, one small survivor, from the once-prolific spring spawn in the Severn. Allison and Pierre are using my personal boat, since I am the Severn Riverkeeper, and the Severn Riverkeeper Program is too new and too poor to buy a boat. They are covering the same waters that my father and I used to fish when I was a small boy.

Sadly, the quality of these waters is now entirely different. No longer clean, clear and full of life, but brown and nearly empty except for the hardiest survivors and increasing dead zones.

Two years prior, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources had declared, in yet another study, the collapse of the once abundant yellow perch fishery. This month, the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science issued its Bay Report Card and declared the Severn one of the most polluted of all the bay tributaries.

These reports are always full of cold, hard statistics documenting the death of a resource, but rarely a word about what they are doing to save the fishery. Isn't that also their job, to save the fishery, and not just write its obituary?

March fishing for yellow perch was always a spring ritual that I eagerly anticipated long after the excitement of Christmas had faded.

I never minded the cold, March waters that were now numbing Allison and Pierre's hands. My father and I always struck yellow perch gold in those spring waters.

I continued this ritual with my son John, after my wife Nancy and I were lucky enough to buy a home right on the river. My father never understood our enthusiasm for an old cottage, little better than a fishing shack, though I constantly reminded him of the 12 feet of water at the end of the dock.

Sadly, I could not continue this spring ritual of yellow "ned" fishing with my grandson Brandon. The Department of Natural Resources had finally acted on the cold, hard statistics by outlawing all fishing for yellow perch in the Severn River. As if this would save the fishery.

Didn't they know what every young boy on the river knew, that it was the uncontrolled stormwater runoff that was smothering the eggs and killing the fishery? All you had to do was watch the torrents of brown sediment entering the river with every rainfall.

Allison and Pierre did not find any yellow perch fry that cold, wet day in March. However, they did begin a new ritual. It is a ritual that you can join, which one day may bring back the yellow perch to the Severn.

This new ritual of hunting for yellow perch fry precedes our summer monitoring program. In our monitoring program, we measure the health of the river at 15 monitoring sites. However, this is not just another study. It is part of an annual report to the governor that features important recommendations. Implementation of these recommendations may one day restore the yellow perch fishery and the Severn. Our Severn River Monitoring Program is part of our annual SevernStat Report to the governor.

In our 2007 SevernStat Report, we made two recommendations, both of which were adopted. We recommended that the governor remind the Anne Arundel County Executive that the state would match any monies raised by the county for a dedicated stormwater protection fund. We also recommended that the governor mandate living shorelines for erosion control instead of destructive riprap. Living shorelines provide critical habitat for yellow perch fry and other marine life to feed and hide from larger predators.

Unfortunately, the county executive fought the dedicated fund for stormwater control, because it would cost county residents $2.50 a month. Fortunately, the governor's Secretary of the Environment, Shari Wilson, pushed legislation for living shorelines, which just passed the General Assembly. This will help protect the Severn and the bay. The Severn River is the Capital River of the State of Maryland. Gov. Martin O'Malley seems determined to protect the Severn as well as the other Maryland waterways. He is doing this through an aggressive BayStat Program.

Our annual SevernStat Report is intended to help the governor in this effort. Shari T. Wilson, the state secretary of the environment, and John Griffin, the secretary of natural resources, seem determined to follow the governor's lead and do more than just study the problem.

Everyone is welcome to join the Severn Riverkeeper Program and help us protect the Severn and the Chesapeake Bay. The Severn Riverkeeper number (410-849-8540) is in the phone book. You can join Allison and Pierre in hunting for yellow perch fry in the Spring or, in the warmer weather, monitor the health of the river for our report to the governor. Who knows, with your help, there may never be a last yellow perch to spawn in the Severn.

Fred Kelly is the riverkeeper for the Severn River.

(Revised April 2008)