Saving the shad may require a rescue mission launched from Capitol Hill.
Atlantic Coast states seem incapable of doing it on their own, because of competing interests, differing regulations and pressure from local fishermen.
But legislation before Congress would force the states to limit catches of shad and other coastal fish that roam from place to place and need regional protection.
Congress alone has the clout to force the Atlantic group to act in unison to save threatened species.
"This is the only way you can get states to do what they have to do -- [threaten them with] a hammer," says Dr. William A. Richkus, a fisheries specialist with Versar Inc., an environmental consulting firm in Columbia.
At least 19 kinds of coastal fish besides shad are dangerously depleted, federal studies show. Those threatened include several fish that, like shad, are important to the Chesapeake Bay: river herring, weakfish, bluefish, Atlantic croaker and summer flounder.
In Congress, Rep. Gerry E. Studds, a Massachusetts Democrat, has introduced a bill requiring all Atlantic states to adopt agreed-upon catch restrictions for coastal fish, or face a federally imposed ban on landing them.
The U.S. government has authority to control fishing three to 200 miles offshore, but states retain control in coastal waters, bays .. and rivers.
States slow to act
Though Maryland and other states are beginning to crack down on overfishing, inertia in state capitals remains a problem.
For example, Maryland and Virginia have not curtailed catches of river herring, now decimated in the bay but once even more abundant than shad.
"We just can't rely on individual states to propose proper regulations for their fisheries," says Richard Novotny, executive director of the Maryland Saltwater Sportsfishermen's Association.
The Studds bill, which received a hearing in May before a House Fisheries Management subcommittee, has the support of environmentalists, sports fishermen and most Atlantic states.
"We are not for the federal government taking over all fisheries management," says Dr. Torrey C. Brown, Maryland's natural resources secretary. "But when the creature crosses political boundaries . . . somebody has to hold the cards."
But Virginia opposes the bill, citing "states' rights."
"What we want is to do things on our own timetable and, having listened to the concerns of our fishermen, [do] what we think is necessary to save [fish] stocks," says Jack G. Travelstead, chief of fisheries for the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.
Maryland's commercial fishermen and charter captains also oppose the measure.
"We do not need another layer of bureaucracy regulating this fishery," says Joseph F. Rupp 2nd, president of the Maryland Charterboat Association.
Besides bays and rivers, the Studds bill would affect near-shore ocean fisheries, and this worries the Maryland captains who work the coastline.
'We want conservation'
Aboard the trawler Atlantic Girl off Ocean City one day recently, crewmen Dale Hilliard and Albert Dennis Jr. picked through tons of crabs, skates and other "trash" fish caught in their net to find about 250 pounds of summer flounder big enough to keep.
The trawler's 25-year-old captain, Sam Martin, complained that government red tape already threatens to sink him. Maryland fishermen are allowed to catch only 500 pounds of flounder daily, just as the number of fish seems to be increasing.
"We all want conservation," he said. "We all want to save what we don't use, but it seems like we take the brunt of [regulation]."
In the case of the striped bass, also known as the rockfish, federal intervention benefited watermen by helping to preserve a valuable resource.
Overfishing caused the population to plummet all along the East Coast beginning in the late 1970s.
The earlier disappearance of shad in the Chesapeake was one reason for the added pressure on rockfish.
"When we quit fishing for shad, that just meant we fished longer for striped bass," recalls Larry W. Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association. "When you lose one species, that just puts pressure on [others]."
The Atlantic states -- Maryland included -- were slow to do much.
Finally, in 1984, Congress passed a law giving the states a choice: Limit catches of rockfish or face a federal ban on fishing for them.
Thus pushed, Maryland went beyond the recommended limits and imposed a moratorium in 1985, which lasted five years and was followed by strict catch limits. Other states took similar steps.
And it worked. Biologists say the rockfish population has rebounded nearly to the abundance of 20 years ago.
The shad, too, was once plentiful -- and might be again.
But forces that helped deplete shad and other species will be tough to overcome, says Mr. Rupp, the charter skipper.
Regulation of fishing all along the Atlantic Coast remains "mangled in politics and greed," he says.