The fate of commercial fishing in Ohio waters of Lake Erie is at a tipping point in the wake of a yellow perch rackteering scandal in which 10 individuals and five businesses have paid fines totaling $356,000 for their part.
Yellow perch are a superb food dish, prized by both sport and commercial fishermen. They accounted for three of every four dollars in the $4 million in Ohio commercial fish landings in 2005. So their importance and high profile are a lock.
The outcome of the following series of recent developments could change the way the state's commercial lake fishery - with its 18 licenses and 12 license-holders - is managed, or how it ends:
The Ohio Wildlife Council, the appointive body in charge of setting hunting, fishing and trapping regulations, is scheduled to meet Wednesday to consider the tightened reporting rules that could go into effect May 1.
One change would prohibit commercial boats from having yellow perch from the central and western basins, the two fishing districts, on board at the same time.
"It is critical that harvest from each basin be separately and accurately measured, given the need to properly manage perch populations," said Roger Knight, lake program administrator for the wildlife division. Annual quotas are assigned each basin under agreement with the Lake Erie Committeee of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission.
A second change would require commercial fishing vessels to notify the division at least 30 minutes prior to docking with details about the catch. A voice-mail system would collect such details as dock site, name and numbers of the boat, license number, weight of each species harvested and the estimated time of arrival.
A third change, already being revised, involves display of flags on trapnets. A color code is to be established to show the basin in which a fisherman is operating.
In a hearing before the Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review in Columbus on Thursday, state lawmakers agreed with commercial fishermen's concerns that the current red flag-markers should be retained because recreational boaters have learned their purpose and it helps avoid entanglement with or destruction of net gear.
Daniel Schneider, executive law enforcement administrator for the division, said that a revised flag rule could be ready in time for Wednesday's OWC consideration, along with the other two changes which JCARR approved Thursday. The revision presumably would retain the familiar red flag on top with an owner flag beneath and thus would keep recreational boaters alerted while designating the identity of the net. The revision still would be subject to JCARR oversight if approved by the OWC.
Commercial fishermen are upset with the "hail-in" rule, saying that as written it sets them up to be violators.
"I have no problem with a call-in on yellow perch with a 10 percent leeway," said Mike Szuch, a Jerusalem Township commercial fisherman. "That's fine. I have no problem with it. I haven't talked to a fisherman who opposes it."
The rub comes in with the language that requires a report while under way of exact poundage, per species, in the catch.
"How are you going to call in and just shoot from the hip on this?" asserts Szuch. It is practically impossible to exactly weigh fish in a pitching workboat, he notes.
Schneider contends that "it's pretty black and white that they have to have exact poundage." To which he quickly adds a seeming assurance: "We are not unreasonable people and are willing to work with the industry to make these rules work for both of us."
Adds Dave Graham, assistant chief of wildlife: "They're not going to have to put scales on their boats. [But] if these guys had never falsified this stuff they'd never have to be doing this. It's an extra layer of accountability."
It seems clear, however, that the division wants to keep the big legal hammer of exact poundage reporting in its back pocket, regardless of enforcement policy.
Szuch also is one of the few remaining netters who fishes in both fishing districts. He contends that having to return to port to unload one district's catch and go back out to pull the remaining district's nets is a waste of time and money, to the point where it could put him, a fourth generation fisherman, out of business.
"These [proposals] almost dare us to make a mistake," he said. "I'd just like to stay in business. That's the whole deal."
Szuch is not one of the fishermen involved in the just-closed racketeering cases.
Kevin Ramsey, Lake Erie law enforcement supervisor for the wildlife division, said that at least five more individuals face charges either in Lorain or Cuyahoga counties on "another sizable racketeering case" involving yellow perch from 2001 to 2003.
Whatever management and regulatory changes cascade from the cases, however, Ramsey said the focus needs to be on the lake, not who is punished to what degree.
"The real crux of this is the fate of the Lake Erie fisheries. It's about the resource. It's about stewardship. It's about trying to keep Lake Erie healthy."
Knight agrees with the need for changes that aid in managing the fisheries through better accounting of catches. No one, for example, could anticipate the impact of 40 tons of unreported perch in the overall lakewide perch management scheme.
Such unreported catches, he added, "are a huge problem, a resource problem, a management problem." Nevertheless, Knight acknowledged, "the lake can sustain properly managed commercial fisheries."
The immediate prospect of tighter commercial rules or other longer-term management strategies, however, all may become moot if the sportfishing lobby has its way and state lawmakers can be induced to buy out all remaining licenses and end commercial fishing altogether.
Bob Collins, president of the LECBA, said the association already has collected "well over 4,000" signatures on a petition to do just that.
"We'll keep collecting signatures 'til we get the law [banning all nets] passed," he vowed.
State Rep. Jim McGregor (R., Gahanna), already has drafted a buyout plan, though it yet has to be submitted as a bill, Collins said.
The racketeering cases were the final straw in what has been "a long time coming," asserts Collins. He said that the League of Ohio Sportsmen as well has endorsed the buyout concept.
"They can't deny they took 40 tons of perch," he said of the lawbreakers. "That's 80,000 pounds, two-and-a-half fish to the pound, 200,000 fish."
Any buyout would have to come through state lawmakers, not through the division of wildlife, which makes rules, not laws. Assistant chief Graham said the division has not yet been formally approached by lawmakers for input in any proposal, but "it's certainly something we may have to consider this year.''
It is almost ironic that Ohio, given recovered yellow perch stocks, has been allocated even more fish in its quotas this year by the GLFC's lake committee.
The Ohio total allowable catch in 2005 was some 5.44 million pounds, of which commercial netters were allowed some 1.8 million pounds. The total allotment for 2006 is almost 7.49 million pounds, of which commercial Ohio netters will be allowed to take 3.13 million pounds, according to preliminary figures. Sport anglers will be allowed some 4.35 million pounds. They are allowed 40 perch per day, up from 30.
Jeff Tyson, Lake Erie fisheries research supervisor for the division, said that the breakdown of the overall 2006 catch by fishing district, however, still is under consideration.
In any case, it appears that commercial netters will be allowed an extra 1.5 million pounds of perch in 2006 - if they are around to catch it.