Net gain for American shad? Ocean fishing: Atlantic states expected to end offshore commercial capture of recovering species.

September 30, 1998

AMERICAN SHAD, once the fat, silver-bellied messenger of spring in Northeast rivers, needs a lot of help if the vulnerable species is to make a healthy recovery.

Since 1980, when Maryland closed the Chesapeake Bay to catching the bony but delicious fish, millions have been spent to restore the shad in its spawning rivers from Virginia to New York.

Dozens of dams and man-made obstacles are being removed or breached, and fish ladders and lifts installed, to aid the upriver migration of this heavy herring to lay eggs in its native waters. Water quality in the bay and many tributaries has improved to support a recovery. Hatcheries add millions of shad fry to waterways.

But signs of recovery are mixed. A major problem is the commercial gill-net capture of shad along the ocean coast. Without limits, trawlers indiscriminately haul in shad with other species. Shad swimming to depleted rivers may be netted, foiling restoration efforts.

Ocean fishing may soon be banned. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is expected next month to reduce by 40 percent the coastal catch of shad in three years, ending offshore netting within five years.

With so much effort under way to reopen and clean up shad spawning rivers, it makes sense to curb catches at crucial "intercept" routes in the ocean, where fish travel en route to home rivers.

Fishermen argue no direct evidence exists to prove that ocean fishing is hurting shad recovery in freshwater rivers.

And commercial demand for shad is shrinking, with prices as low as 5 cents a pound.

Restoring healthy shad runs would reverse centuries of human damage: dams and culverts, pollution and overfishing. Clamping down on ocean netting is an important recovery strategy.

It also makes economic sense: Officials predict a regulated sport-fishing (hook and line) industry worth $20 million a year if shad can again fill the region's freshwater streams.

Pub Date: 9/30/98

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