Fish are disappearing at an alarming rate in U.S. coastal waters, with nearly one-third of all species having declined in population in the last 15 years, researchers say.
In separate reports, a Massachusetts agency and two national environmental groups have reached the same conclusion about the fish population off the coast: Unless the National Marine Fisheries Service imposes stricter conservation measures and fishing regulations, many fish species may decline or be wiped out in the next decade.
"The plundering of our coastal waters has imperiled most fish species," said Amos S. Eno, director of conservation programs for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, a non-profit conservation group in Washington that recently issued a report on the federal agency's policies.
From haddock and flounder off Georges Bank in New England to Spanish mackerel off the Gulf of Mexico to striped bass off California, many fish species are threatened by overfishing and an advancing tide of pollutants and coastal development that have degraded habitats and wetlands that fish use as spawning and migrating grounds.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, which controls and regulates 2.2 million miles of coastal waters, says it is taking steps to control fish depletion, including tougher restrictions on net sizes and quotas.
"The bottom line is that there is a strong recognition that fish depletion has become a dire situation," said Roddy Moscoso, a spokesman for the agency. "The traditional belief that the fisheries are open to anyone with a boat does not work."
Scientists say that a change in the population of any one species of fish, particularly those at the top of the food chain, could have unforeseen effects on marine environments, disrupting ecosystems and affecting birds, marine mammals and smaller organisms that depend on fish and their habitats to survive.
Nearly one-fifth of the world's annual fish and shellfish harvests is caught within 200 miles of the U.S. coastline. Yet only 15 percent of those fish species are yielding stocks near their potential level, according to the report by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
At least 14 species found off coastal waters are in danger of being depleted, including Atlantic salmon, swordfish, Pacific Ocean perch, shad, California halibut, mackerel, cod, haddock and flounder, the three studies found.
But in the Chesapeake Bay, although the oyster population has plummeted to 1 percent of its former abundance, the once-threatened rockfish is making a comeback nearly eight years after Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agreed restore the health of the bay. The bay's shad population is also on the upswing.
In New England, overfishing has devastated so many species that most highly valued fish are being replaced by those of lower value, which are better able to survive, the study by the Massachusetts Offshore Groundfish Task Force found.
"The 1990s will definitely be a time of reckoning in the fishing industry," said Brian J. Rothschild, a research biologist for the University of Maryland. "Technically, you can stop overfishing as quickly as you can snap your fingers. But nobody is doing it."
All three reports, by the Massachusetts task force, the Washington-based Center for Marine Conservation, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, recommend that the fisheries service restrict commercial catches to allow fish stocks to recover.
It would take five to 10 years to recover depleted stocks with little or no fishing, said John P. Wise, author of the report by the Center for Marine Conservation.
Fish tend to be more resilient than wildlife, and few reach the point of extinction. But biologists are increasingly concerned about preserving habitats from pollution, development and energy projects.
The study by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation found that pesticide contamination has been found in 21 of 78 estuaries -- the coastal bays, inlets and rivers where fresh water mixes with shallow salt water to provide a rich environment for marine life and to support most of the nation's commercial catch.
In San Francisco Bay, the population of striped bass has declined 60 to 80 percent because of contamination.
In the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds of North Carolina, low levels of dissolved oxygen in the water have suffocated hundreds of thousands of striped bass, crabs and eels.
The Atlantic salmon, historically a vibrant denizen of wild, free-flowing rivers, has been eliminated from New England, except for Maine; its upstream passage to spawning grounds has been blocked by dams.
Biologists are also tackling the problem of overfishing. They say that fishermen recognize they are just on the edge of destroying the marine environment and allowing it to survive.
In New England, overfishing has drastically changed the population of fish stocks, the Massachusetts study found.
On Georges Bank, highly valued stocks like sole, pollock, yellowtail flounder and fluke, which composed 65 percent of all fish stocks in the 1960s, now make up only 25 percent of all stocks there.
They have been replaced by lower-valued species like spiny dogfish, skate and shark, said Steven A. Murawski, head of population dynamics for the Northeast Fisheries Center in Woods Hole, Mass., a branch of the National Marine Fisheries Service, and an author of the Massachusetts study.