WASHINGTON -- An environmental group is hailing the government's refusal to place the striped bass, popular among sport and commercial fishermen, on the Endangered Species List.
The National Wildlife Federation lauded the decision Tuesday as it released a Jan. 7 letter from the Commerce Department to a Massachusetts-based group, Stripers Unlimited, which had petitioned to have the Chesapeake Bay strain of the bass listed as endangered or threatened.
'The Endangered Species Act is an important preservation tool but it should not be invoked haphazardly,' said federation Executive Vice President Jay Hair. 'The question in this case is one of proper management to aid in the recovery of the striper.'
Striped bass populations have been on the decline recently. Scientists cite several contributing factors, among them pollution, toxic chemical contamination and over fishing.
The bass is an 'anadromous' fish, like salmon, which spawns in fresh water but grows to maturity in the ocean. Striped bass spawned in Chesapeake Bay move along the Atlantic Coast as far north as Maine.
The bass grows to a large size: The heaviest on record weighed 125 pounds and the longest specimen is estimated at six feet. It is a relatively long-lived fish, with a life span of 20 years or more.
In the letter, Carmen Blondin of the department's fisheries resource management division noted that an interstate fisheries management plan has been developed by Atlantic Coast states to protect the striped bass from excessive fishing.
East Coast states from Maine to North Carolina have agreed to a unified plan to manage the bass, which the government and the federation consider critical for its recovery. Until recently, each state managed the fish independently.
Blondin also noted in his letter that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is conducting an 'emergency striped bass study' to determine more precisely the causes for the bass' decline.
Total annual commercial catches of striped bass along the Atlantic coast averaged some 9.5 million pounds between 1958 and 1976, with a maximum of 14.7 million pounds in 1973. The commercial catch declined from 1973 to 1979, when it was 3.1 milion pounds. The catch for 1981 was 3.8 million pounds.
'The harvest of striped bass by sport fishermen probably has decreased by the same magnitude as the commercial harvest, despite an apparent increase in the number of sport fishermen,' National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration experts concluded in a report on the fish.
The latest figures indicate that in 1979 more than 1 million striped bass were caught along the Atlantic coast by recreational fishermen, with Maryland accounting for more than half the total.