Years of controversial restrictions on striped bass catches in the Chesapeake Bay and along the East Coast have paid off as fisheries officials recently declared that rockfish stocks were "recovered" from their depleted levels of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The May 18 action by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will allow states to increase their catches of striped bass. The total catch, though, will have to remain within limits set by the ASMFC.

"After more than a decade of active cooperation and management by the state and federal agencies, and following severe harvest restrictions, the Atlantic coastal migratory stocks are returning to historic levels of abundance," the ASMFC said in a policy statement.

Officially, the ASMFC said, striped bass stocks will be considered recovered as of Jan. 1, 1995.

That will allow states to consider relaxing harvest restrictions beginning next year, though the commission pledged to "conservatively manage" the striped bass to "preclude the excessive harvests observed through the 1970s and early 1980s." The commission said it would develop guidelines for managing the striped bass to "ensure a healthy stock providing long-term sustainable yields from coastal fisheries."

The commission is a multistate compact that develops management plans for stocks of fish that migrate along the East Coast. It is made up of representatives from 17 East Coast jurisdictions.

The commission said it based its decision on surveys that showed the number of females in the striped bass spawning stock to be near the historical high levels observed in the 1960s and early 1970s.

In Maryland, officials hailed the decision as vindication of the state's often controversial efforts to save the fish, which included a five-year ban on catching striped bass - a species that appears on the state seal - during the late 1980s.

"To have taken this fishery, which was on the brink of collapse, and return it to health is an unprecedented achievement," said Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer. "It demonstrates that through strong management and coordinated action, we can improve the health of the living resources of the Chesapeake Bay."

"The most important factor in the decline of the striped bass was overfishing," said Maryland Department of Natural Resources Secretary Torrey C. Brown. "Now that the population is recovered, while we will be able to expand fishing opportunities, we must ensure that overfishing does not occur again by continuing a prudent approach to determining catch limits and other management requirements."

Most striped bass spawn in the Bay, but they live most of their lives migrating up and down the Atlantic coast. Intense fishing pressure throughout its habitat during the 1970s sent populations plummeting. To stop the population collapse, the ASMFC developed a management plan sharply curtailing the catch.

When states failed to implement those restrictions, Congress passed the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act, which allowed the federal government to impose a moratorium on striped bass catches for any state that failed to abide by the management plan.

To aid recovery, Maryland imposed a total ban on striped bass fishing in 1985. Virginia followed suit in 1989.

After a large spawn in 1989, the moratorium was lifted in 1990, though strict limits were placed on catches. Last year, Maryland reported the largest spawn recorded in its 30 years of striped bass monitoring.

While ASMFC's decision was based on estimates of the Chesapeake Bay striped bass population, it said that spawning stocks from the Hudson, Delaware, and Roanoke rivers were also doing well. "All available evidence also suggests that these other 'producer' areas are also recovering or, in the case of the Hudson River, are fully re-established to past levels," the commission statement said.

The success of the striped bass legislation led Congress last year to enact a new law that puts similar enforcement power behind other ASMFC management plans, parts of which are often ignored by states. If a state fails to fully enact a management plan, the new Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act, allows the federal government to impose a fishing moratorium for that species within the state.

Proponents of that legislation hope that the new law will do for other troubled species - such as shad, weakfish, and bluefish - what the striped bass act did for rockfish.