WASHINGTON -- With many fish becoming scarce in th Chesapeake Bay and along the East Coast, anglers, environmentalists and state officials asked Congress yesterday to force coastal states to crack down on overfishing.
Without federal intervention, some depleted fish populations such as American shad, flounder and weakfish may not recover, warned supporters of a bill sponsored by Rep. Gerry E. Studds, D-Mass.
Mr. Studds, chairman of the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, introduced legislation last week that would require states from Maine to Florida to cooperate in protecting fish that migrate along the coast.
The states would have to act in concert to regulate both recreational and commercial harvests. And the federal government could ban fishing for at-risk species in states that fail to abide by agreed-upon restrictions.
The bill is modeled on a law Congress passed in 1984 that many say helped save striped bass, better known in the bay region as rockfish. They declined throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, until East Coast states, spurred by congressional action, severely curtailed fishing. Maryland, whose bay waters are a nursery for most striped bass, imposed a five-year total moratorium, which was eased in 1990 after rockfish reproduction rebounded.
At yesterday's hearing, the Studds bill drew support from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, whose fisheries expert, William Goldsborough, blamed ineffective state regulation for the failure American shad to return to the bay.
Shad, once one of the most valuable fish harvests in the Chesapeake, have yet to rebound despite a 13-year fishing moratorium in Maryland waters of the bay.
Mr. Goldsborough said that East Coast states, including Maryland and Virginia, have done little to restrict the taking of shad in the ocean -- which reduces the number entering the bay and other coastal waters to spawn.
Besides striped bass and shad, other well-known bay fish that roam up and down the coast include blue fish, red drum and river herring.
Federal fisheries officials have determined that half of the 38 most important Atlantic fish species are currently being overfished. Moreover, weakfish and summer flounder may be in worse shape than rockfish were when Congress moved to save them, experts say.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, set up by Congress 50 years ago to coordinate state actions, has developed conservation plans to protect 20 major coastal fish species from overfishing. But only three of those plans have been followed completely by all the East Coast states.
The Schaefer administration is undecided on the Studds bill, said Ken Manella of Maryland's Washington lobbying office. The bill is opposed by Virginia officials -- who contend that such regulation should be left to the states -- and by commercial fishermen in North Carolina, where most of the remaining weakfish are being caught.