Politicians, fishermen, scientists come to the aid of striped bass

From the restaurants of Cape Cod to the estuaries of the Chesapeake Bay, scientists and politicians are trying to help the striped bass stage a comeback. The bass population has declined dramatically in the past decade. Prized by sportsmen and revered in restaurants, the bass is threatened by overfishing and environmental problems.

Even fishermen are getting into the act. Joe Grey, a commercial fisherman here, says fishing for striped bass should probably be banned altogether. A moratorium on fishing might be the only way to stem the stripers' decline, he says.

Paul Perra, a fish biologist with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, says the fish ''are not going to disappear.'' Striped bass inhabit other regions of the world.

The concern is for the Atlantic stock, which spawns in the estuaries of the Chesapeake Bay and in the Hudson River, and migrates annually between North Carolina and Maine.

Since 1974, the scarcity of the fish has accounted for a loss of 5,600 jobs, and in 1980 alone over $200 million, according to a University of Maryland report.

Tony Mazzacaro, department head of the Marine Advisory program at the University of Maryland, says there are various theories as to why the bass population is declining. These include a lack of oxygen or food in the spawning grounds, temperature drops, acid rain, and overfishing, he says.

Several groups are taking action to bring the fish back. The Atlantic coastal states are working to reduce the catch off their shores.

Harley Spier, a fish biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, says these states, working through the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, negotiated a plan to limit fishing in 1981.

In spite of this, ''the stock has continued to decline,'' he says.

This year the commission asked states to further reduce the catch by more than 50 percent, he says, a plan that would allow for some rebuilding of the stock.

Phillip G. Coates, director of the Massachusetts division of Marine Fisheries , says new regulations in Massachusetts limit recreational fishermen to one fish per day. Licensed commercial fishermen may catch as many bass as they can, but the season is only open from June 1 to Sept. 30.

Almost half the fish landed off Massachusetts are caught after September, he says. So limiting the season will account for a large reduction in the catch.

Also, several Cape Cod restaurants have voluntarily removed striped bass from their menus.

Maine, New Hampshire, and Connecticut prohibit any sale of the fish, Perra says. Rhode Island has gone further, by imposing a moratorium on bass fishing. That will probably give way to a limited fishing season, he says.

Other seaboard states are using a combination of means - a limited season, quotas, and size limits - to meet the goal.

Mr. Coates says because the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has no enforcement power, each state must voluntarily comply with the efforts.

Some consider this inadequate, and see the need for federal involvement.

Dr. Mazzacaro says ''the problem is bigger than the states.'' For instance, he says, 70 to 80 percent of the East Coast fish come from Maryland. Yet Massachusetts fishermen catch the most fish.

Mazzacaro says Maryland officials ask, ''Should our state spend (millions of dollars) to enhance the fishery when most fish are caught elsewhere?'' Federal involvement would protect against ''parochialism,'' he says.

Perra, however, says this is ''a states' rights issue.'' There are currently three bills pending in Congress that would impose some sort of moratorium on bass fishing, he says. But, he asks, ''Should Congress tell the states how to manage their waters?''

At best, says Perra, efforts to reduce the catch are a temporary solution. ''The bad environmental condition of the Chesapeake Bay is equally as strong a problem as overfishing,'' he says.

Cleanup of the polluted Chesapeake will create a better habitat for the fish, Mazzacaro says, but it will take time.

Mr. Spier of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources says his state recently passed a ''bay initiatives package,'' which includes limiting development near the shoreline and upgrading sewage treatment plants. It will impose regulations on waste-producing industries, and will look at runoff pollution from agricultural and urban areas.

The package also provides money for studying the feasibility of operating a fish hatchery to replenish the endangered fish. The University of Maryland is developing a hatchery now, and it has two ponds operating, stocked with 150,000 fish.

Maryland has committed more than $20 million to the project. Virginia, Pennsylvania and the federal government are contributing as well.

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