Congress casts safety net to Atlantic migratory fish


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.

Introduced in the House by Rep. Gerry E. Studds, D-Mass., the legislation had bipartisan support. It was co-sponsored by two lawmakers from Maryland: Rep. Helen D. Bentley, R-2nd, 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 species. But few states have imposed all the restrictions, and up to 19 species are being overfished, officials said.

In serious trouble are bluefish and weakfish, or 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.

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.

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