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Md. promotes yellow perch fish to restaurants

Wednesday - 2/22/2012, 10:50am  ET

By PAMELA WOOD
The Capital of Annapolis

ABINGDON, Md. (AP) - Gold-green and shimmery, the fish slide off of Matt Meredith's shovel and onto the culling board of Capt. Anthony Conrad's small boat in the Bush River.

Meredith and crewmate Kevin O'Neil quickly sort the fish, loop yellow tags through their mouths and drop them in a crate.

The crates of fish will be sold to restaurants and at Conrad's Baltimore County seafood market.

They're a fish that few Marylanders have eaten or would recognize: yellow perch.

Small and pretty, yellow perch run up into the Chesapeake Bay's rivers during a brief period each winter. For many years, the Chesapeake Bay's yellow perch were shipped off at rock-bottom prices to the Midwest, where yellow perch are a seasonal delight.

"They didn't stay in town," said Conrad, who alternates between netting for yellow perch and rockfish in the winter.

Perhaps the only local fans for yellow perch have been hardy recreational anglers, who aren't scared to brave winter weather to catch their dinner.

About four years ago, Maryland reworked its management plan for yellow perch.

Commercial watermen aren't allowed to catch a lot of yellow perch, and so, for the past two winters, the Department of Natural Resources has been promoting the fish in hopes of driving up prices.

Statewide, several dozen watermen combined can catch only 50,000 pounds of yellow perch, with most of it in the Upper Bay and smaller quotas in the Patuxent and Chester rivers.

If watermen can make more money without catching more fish, that's good for the fish population, said Steve Vilnit, the DNR's seafood marketing expert.

Vilnit is relentless about promoting yellow perch and Maryland seafood, lobbying chefs and seafood wholesalers. He frequently arranges for chefs to join watermen out on the water, so they can understand the work that goes into catching fish.

Conrad uses fyke nets to catch yellow perch in shallow waters on the Bush River, north of Baltimore.

They're long nets that are placed perpendicular to the shoreline. The nets trick the fish into swimming into a tube-shaped net at the end, where they get stuck.

The nets are staked and secured in the water, so the fish can remain alive for days until the crew can empty them out.

Maneuvering the boat, hauling up the long, awkward net and shaking out the fish is a three-man job.

The fish are scooped up with a shovel and dumped on the culling table for sorting and tagging.

Yellow perch (Perca flavescens) are caught in January and February as they move up rivers and creeks to spawn. They're one of the first fish in the bay to make a spawning run, making them a harbinger of the impending end of winter and start of spring.

The commercial fishing season is brief, as watermen can quickly catch their quota if the weather and the fish cooperate. This year's season could end any day now.

The small size of yellow perch poses challenges for Vilnit in his marketing efforts.

Unlike, say, a rockfish that can be cut up into several fillets, yellow perch are small, less than a pound apiece. The largest ever caught in Maryland was just 3 pounds and 5 ounces.

That means they're best presented as a whole fish _ sometimes two fish for an entree.

But the taste is worth it, according to yellow perch boosters.

"It's a very clean fish. It's sweet and mild. The roe is delicious," Vilnit said. "It's just a great tasting fish and it's underutilized in this area."

Conrad says his two kids _ ages 2 and 5 _ like yellow perch better than any other fish.

Conrad says the texture is similar to flounder, white and flaky. He says it's good broiled or breaded and pan fried.

Dozens of restaurants in the Baltimore-Washington region have been carrying yellow perch this winter, Vilnit said.

Baltimore's Woodberry Kitchen _ known for offering meals made from local ingredients _ offered a tomato-based yellow perch stew on its menu Friday night, for example.

Some retail markets have picked up on yellow perch as well, including Wegmans. Vilnit hopes to get Maryland's yellow perch certified as a sustainable fishery in hopes of wooing more markets.

The effort has helped. Not so long ago, watermen were getting as little as 80 cents a pound for yellow perch _ and it takes two or three of these small fish to add up to a pound.

This year, Conrad said he's selling yellow perch in the $2.50 per pound range.

But that's still not much money. He thinks the yellow perch population is robust enough that it can handle a bigger commercial harvest.

Conrads makes little or no profit on yellow perch, just enough to keep occupied and keep his crew employed through the winter _ so they'll be on board during the brutal but lucrative summer crab season.

"It's enough just to get through the winter," he said.

___

Information from: The Capital of Annapolis, Md., http://www.hometownannapolis.com/


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