Shad are the first major fish species to enter the Bay and its rivers to spawn each spring. Historically, their arrival was eagerly awaited by hungry colonists after lean winter rations, sometimes saving them from starvation.

Now, East Coast fisheries officials want to try to save depleted shad populations in the Bay and other coastal rivers by ending shad fishing in the ocean.

The Shad Management Board of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission — the multistate body responsible for managing migratory fish species — voted in August to reduce the coastal shad catch 40 percent in the next three years, and to close it completely in five.

Shad fishing has been closed in the Bay for years, but both Virginia and Maryland have allowed a coastal “intercept” fishery.

The ASMFC action allows river-based fisheries to continue — and even be expanded — as long as evidence shows stocks in targeted rivers are healthy. Maryland officials said they had no plans to reopen any part of the Bay to shad fishing. Virginia officials said it was possible a small fishery could be restored in the York River.

The ASMFC action was a victory for the Bay Program, which had long urged that the coastal intercept fishery be closed to support multimillion dollar shad restoration efforts in Chesapeake tributaries.

“It’s about time,” said Bill Matuszeski, director of the EPA’s Bay Program Office. “And you can bet we had better keep our eyes on the ASMFC, because given half a chance they will back off.”

But the action, expected to win final approval from ASMFC’s top decision-making panel in October, will likely be challenged by fishermen who say the commission’s own scientific studies failed to show that the coastal fishery was hurting the stock.

“I’m sure we’re going to fight this thing in court,” said Ernie Bowden, a fisherman based in Chincoteague, VA, who quit his position on the ASMFC shad advisory committee after the action. “We’re just not being treated fairly and we’re certainly going to fight.”

Shad spend most of their lives migrating along the coast, but they return to their native rivers to spawn. The ocean fishery has long been controversial because it “intercepts” fish as they migrate along the coast, and fishermen cannot distinguish whether they are catching fish from rivers with healthy, or depleted, stocks.

But a recent ASMFC review of the shad from seven rivers found no evidence that ocean fishing was harming any population that was studied.

“You would think if the intercept fishing was going to have an impact, it would at least show up in one or two of these stocks, but it doesn’t,” said Jack Travelstead, chief of the Virginia Marine Resources Commissions’ Fisheries Management Division. He called the closure the “wrong decision.”

Because of the lack of evidence, Travelstead said he preferred an option that would have capped the ocean catch at current levels and prohibited new fishermen from entering the intercept fishery. That would allow more study to take place while the fishery was controlled and — if necessary — phased out.

“I agree there is the potential for the intercept fishery to affect a stock,” Travelstead said. “I just wish we had more evidence before we start eliminating fisheries and peoples’ livelihood.”

Critics of the intercept fishery say that taking even a few fish from severely depleted stocks — like those in many of the Bay’s tributaries — can be harmful. In June, the ASMFC’s Shad Management Board put the issue out for public comment. Its August vote came after opinion strongly favored closing the ocean fishery.

“How can you continue to justify the moratorium in the Bay and the millions of dollars being spent on fish passages and water quality upstream, and turn around and continue to allow an ocean fishery to sell the fish for 5 cents a pound?” asked Bill Goldsborough, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “To me, that’s a no-brainer.”

During the early part of this century, shad were the Bay’s most valuable fishery, but over the years, shad stocks dramatically declined because of overfishing, pollution and the construction of dams that blocked access to their spawning grounds. Maryland closed its portion of the Bay to shad fishing in 1980, the Potomac River was closed in 1982, and Virginia closed the rest of the Bay in 1993.

In recent years, restoring shad populations has been a major goal of the Bay Program. Efforts are under way by all the Bay states to stock depleted rivers with hatchery-reared fish, while tens of millions of dollars are being spent on fish passages at dams.

Despite the efforts, there has been no clear sign of recovery. Populations are slowly rebuilding in the Susquehanna and the upper Bay, but remain far below historic levels.

Recent surveys by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science found that the James — historically the location of Virginia’s strongest shad population — and the Rappahannock were severely depleted. Only the York, where Pamunkey Indians have been stocking a tributary since 1918, appeared to have a healthy population.

The study contracted Virginia fishermen to stake a single gill net in the lower reaches of each of the three rivers to compare the catch rates with those at the same sites before 1993, when the fishery was closed. No other data exists on shad in Virginia for the last five years.

“We’re tending to believe that yes, York River stocks are reaching a point now where they may be commercially viable,” said John Olney, the VIMS scientist who conducted the study. “But we have to be careful because there is only one year of data from one net. And in the presence of an active, off-shore fishery, you can’t really be certain of what the total exploitation rate is on the stocks.”

Many critics of the ocean fishery support river-based fishing because managers can set harvests based on the health of the spawning population native to a particular river.

But the potential of opening — and in some places enlarging — river fishing was troublesome to Bowden, particularly with the lack of concrete evidence showing harm was caused by the coastal fishery. He argued that if striped bass were managed the same way, they would only be harvested in the Chesapeake, where 85 percent of them spawn.

“Every management plan the ASMFC has ever done, even if we don’t like them, are fair across the board and had some scientific merit,” Bowden said. “This has none.”

Richard St. Pierre, Susquehanna River Coordinator for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, agreed that closing the intercept fishery did not guarantee that shad stocks would recover. But, he said, it would end a potential obstacle to its recovery. “It removes one of the things that we had no control over,” St. Pierre said.

But Bowden said the action could hurt fishermen without helping the shad. That’s because the shad is part of a “mixed stock” fishery along much of the coast. Much of the shad season overlaps with the weakfish and striped bass season, and fishermen sometimes use the same gear to catch each species.

The result of the ASMFC’s action, Bowden said, is that he would still catch shad when he was targeting weakfish — he just couldn’t sell them. “I don’t think it will reduce mortality very much,” he said.

Travelstead agreed that the fact the intercept fishery is a mixed stock — rather than species-specific — fishery was ignored by ASMFC. “While you eliminate people from the fishery and the legal landing of shad from the ocean, I don’t know that you will see an equal decrease in the mortality for shad,” he said.

Goldsborough said if that is the case, other steps may need to be taken to protect the shad. Travelstead, though, said the ASMFC action made no mention of altering other fisheries to benefit shad.

Bowden predicted that, ultimately, the commercial shad fishery would die out on its own because sales, and prices, have been falling for years. Historically — before the days of freezers — shad were valuable because they were the first major fish catch of the year.

But most young people don’t eat the bony fish, Bowden said. The main market that remains are older people who grew up eating shad in the spring when they were young.

Bowden said on Chincoteague Island, where he lives, “I don’t think you could give a hundred pounds of them away to people under 60. We’ve kind of gotten out of eating fish with a lot of bones in it.”