Inspired by the comeback of rockfish, Congress has ordered the same help for shad, bluefish and other Atlantic Coast migratory fish that have dwindled in the Chesapeake Bay.
Just before adjournment for the holidays, the Senate unanimously approved a bill late Monday night giving the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission authority to restrict the catch of declining fish species from Maine to Florida.
"This is going to be a tremendous step forward," said William J. Goldsborough, fisheries expert for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
The House had passed the bill earlier this year. But it was stalled in the Senate until last weekend by three Republican senators from Virginia and North Carolina, where commercial fishermen oppose federal intervention.
Attached to a bill reauthorizing the Coast Guard, the fisheries measure finally moved after changes were made to ease the objections of Sens. John W. Warner of Virginia and Jesse A. Helms and Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina. They demanded that fishermen be given more input in regulations, and that Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt be denied any say in whether to ban a state's catch of a threatened fish.
Despite the amendments, conservationists said the bill is a landmark in fisheries management. They have long complained that individual states lack the political will to protect migratory fish, especially when catch limits in neighboring states are less restrictive.
But the measure is handicapped by a lack of funding, supporters say, which could hinder efforts to curtail overfishing.
Originally introduced in the House by Rep. Gerry E. Studds, D-Mass., the legislation had bipartisan support. It was co-sponsored by two Maryland lawmakers: Rep. Helen D. Bentley, a Republican representing the 2nd District, and Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Democrat.
The Atlantic fisheries commission, representing Maryland and 14 other East Coast states, has adopted guidelines for conserving 20 commercial and recreational fish. But few states have imposed all the catch restrictions it called for, and up to 19 species are being overfished, according to federal officials.
In serious trouble are bluefish and weakfish, or gray sea trout. The two species are especially popular among mid-Atlantic sports anglers and commercial fishermen. The coastal bluefish population has hit its lowest level in almost 20 years, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, and commercial landings of weakfish have declined by 85 percent in the past decade.
American or white shad also may get more protection from fishing pressure, said John H. Dunnigan, the commission's executive director.
Shad in sharp decline
The victim of overfishing and dams blocking their spawning rivers, shad in the Chesapeake remain seriously depleted, despite a 13-year fishing moratorium in the upper bay and extensive hatchery stocking in the Susquehanna River. Although shad have been plentiful in some places along the Atlantic coast, spawning runs declined sharply everywhere this year, alarming fisheries scientists.
The states would have up to 15 months after the bill becomes law to amend their fishing regulations to meet the commission's requirements. If a state fails to comply, Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown may impose a fishing moratorium there.
North Carolina, which has failed to curb its commercial weakfish harvest, and New Jersey, whose sports anglers object to bluefish limits, would be the first states to feel the pressure of the new law.
"I think it's going to provide the incentive [for states] to come into compliance," said Andrew J. Loftus, spokesman for the Sport Fishing Institute, a nonprofit group based in Washington.
The legislation is modeled on a law Congress passed in 1984 to require states to cooperate in conserving striped bass, better known around the bay as rockfish.
The rockfish catch plummeted in the late 1970s and early 1980s until the Atlantic states, facing the congressional mandate, joined in severely restricting fishing. In Maryland, where the upper bay is a nursery for most Atlantic coast rockfish, the state imposed a moratorium from 1985 until 1990.
The population rebounded as a result. And now, with record numbers of young rockfish in the bay, the fishery is on the verge of being declared completely restored.
Despite that success, the legislation to conserve other species was opposed by Virginia and by some fishermen in Maryland, New Jersey and North Carolina. They contend that neither the federal government nor other states should be telling them what may be caught in their own coastal waters.
But conservationists note that coastal states must act in concert because fish cross state boundaries during migration and spawning.
"I still contend it's unnecessary," said Jerry F. Schill, executive director of the North Carolina Fisheries Association. He charged that the Atlantic fisheries commission had not tried hard enough to obtain states' voluntary cooperation in regulating catches.
But the bill's lack of funding poses a major problem, supporters and critics agree. The legislation authorizes $3 million now, increasing to $7 million by fiscal 1996. Congress did not appropriate any money for this year.
"The states today do not have the fiscal resources that are going to be required to do this job right," said Mr. Dunnigan of the Atlantic fisheries commission. The states have estimated that they need $30 million to research and monitor threatened fish stocks, but the commission itself can be of little help because its budget is only $1.1 million.
Mr. Dunnigan said the commission would begin working with states as soon as the law is signed, and then go back to Congress early next year to seek funding.