Worried about the continued decline of American shad populations along much of the East Coast, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has acted to prevent states from increasing their catches until a new management plan for the species is developed.

The "emergency action" was taken by the ASMFC's Shad and River Herring Management Board at its Oct. 5 meeting to head off mounting pressure from fishermen to relax regulations in some areas. At the same time, though, the board rejected proposals for more severe restrictions than had been offered by its technical committee.

While the Chesapeake Bay stock remains low compared with historic levels, populations in the upper Bay and Susquehanna River area, as well as in the Pamunkey River in Virginia, have recently rebounded. Elsewhere along the coast, the picture is mixed, particularly along several New England rivers, where some areas have experienced dramatic declines in recent years.

The ASMFC, which represents the 15 East Coast states, jointly develops management plans for fish species that migrate across state lines. Its decisions are binding for state management agencies.

Faced with uncertainty about the overall stock health, some fisheries officials had expressed concern that fishing pressure on shad be curbed until work on a stock assessment, which will analyze the health of the stock and the impact of fishing on its population, is completed next spring.

Earlier this summer, the board instructed its technical committee to prepare shad management options for consideration. But the board in October rejected the committee's preferred option, which called for limiting the offshore shad fishery to no more than 30 days, and requiring mandatory reporting of both offshore and inland catches. Also, inland and offshore catches would be limited to their average over the 5-year period of 1990-94.

As other options, the committee proposed doing nothing until the stock assessment is completed, or closing the offshore fishery altogether while limiting the inland fishery to its average catch of the past five years.

The proposals spurred renewal of a longstanding debate pitting the river or "inland" shad fisheries against the coastal or "intercept" fisheries. For years, some have argued that spawning stocks in areas including the Chesapeake Bay have suffered because the expanding coastal fishery catches too many shad as they migrate along the coast, preventing them from returning to their native rivers to spawn. Proponents of the coastal shad fishery dispute that it significantly impacts river populations.

Vic Crecco, a fisheries scientist with the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, said he estimated the coastal shad population was about 6 million, while the total offshore catch was only about 250,000 fish a number too small to explain the drop in the Connecticut River, much less other rivers along the coast. "We're down a million fish [on the Connecticut]," he said.

"It's not a good idea to be tampering with people's livelihood without being pretty sure that down the road wegoing to get some benefit from this," Crecco said.

Both Maryland and Virginia have closed the Bay and its rivers to help the shad population recover, though both states allow a coastal fishery. Despite the coastal fishery, some have noted that the Bay's shad population has risen sharply in recent years, the upper Bay population this year was estimated at 337,000, up from 129,000 last year.

But Dick St. Pierre, who is in charge of Susquehanna River shad restoration efforts for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said that the apparent recovery is not necessarily related to improved habitat conditions or population recovery in the Bay. "Most of the upper Bay shad stock migrates into the Susquehanna River and 1995 surveys at Conowingo Dam indicated that 90 percent of the fish were the result of upstream hatchery releases," he said.

St. Pierre blamed the offshore fishery for slowing recovery in the Bay. "Maryland has had a fishery closure [in the Bay] for 15 years, and even though the total shad numbers in terms of population estimate has shown some dramatic improvements in just the last eight or 10 years, the fact that most of those fish are still of hatchery origin tells you that there are still some major problems," St. Pierre said. "Otherwise we would be full of fish with a fishery closure that length."

In the end, the board decided to require states to either leave existi ng regulations in place or impose more strict ones.

Bill Goldsborough, a fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation who supports restricting the intercept fishery, said the board made the only decision it could based on the information available. "They did probably what was the only defensible thing they could do, which was not let anybody liberalize their regulations," Goldsborough said. The technical committee, he said, did not have enough time before the October meeting to prepare a "good scientific case" for closing the offshore fishery.

The matter may be resolved when the coastwide stock assessment is completed next spring, said John Field, ASMFC anadromous species coordinator. The assessment will provide information about the health of the stock and the role the coastal and inland fisheries play in affecting the population. The assessment will also cover the closely related hickory shad, blueback herring and alewife populations.

Information from the assessment will be used in the development of a new management plan or an amendment to the existing plan which would establish fishing levels that East Coast states would have to follow. Field said the plan should be ready for action in fall 1996.