‘Striper Wars’… They’ll never end

Interest in striped bass fishing is incredible. People pour into the hobby. The annual East Bay Angler January fishing seminar plays to full houses every year. That’s 600 people! Readers of these papers have seen that local striped bass fishing has never been better.

Nevertheless, in the past several months, bright-eyed, sincere people have tried to recruit me to stop harvesting menhaden in Narragansett Bay and to promote sport fish status for striped bass — laws which exist in nearby states.

So, even in good times, somebody wants war.

Dick Russell entered the Striper Wars in 1982. A few old mutts left in Rhode Island remember that the war to save stripers started four or five years earlier.

As Mr. Russell explains, the striped bass problem was states’ rights — amplified by differences in state cultures. Each state had its own ideas on what to do. Every spring, bass leave their Chesapeake Bay and Hudson River breeding grounds to travel up the coast as far as Nova Scotia. They come back in the fall. Midway through this voyage lays their biggest hazard: Rhode Island’s coastal fish traps — politically entrenched since Colonial times. Even before leaving ‘home’ in the Chesapeake, bass face a hazard — the bay watermen who traditionally harvested them before the fish achieved sexual maturity. Stopping that was a war in itself.

Mr. Russell takes readers into the minds of protagonists. We witness the thinking of George Mendonsa, Newport’s infamous trap operator. We hear the thoughts of Jim White, a Coventry postman who became an eloquent spokesman for the species. Dozens of other biologists, politicians, fishermen and bureaucrats flow through Russell’s pages — honored or condemned by their words and deeds.

One hero is Bob Pond, the Attleboro lure maker who started Stripers Unlimited. He was the first to sound the alarm. He was also first to examine striped bass eggs — earning the resentment of biologists. He was scoffed at by sportsmen and rebuffed by bureaucrats, but he persisted, and lived to see his views acclaimed. Other heroes included the late Rhode Island Senator John Chafee, whose research program broke the states’ rights logjam. Senator Chafee’s legislation started the catch limits that now control the fishery. And, of course, Mr. Russell himself traveled up and down the coast keeping everyone informed of what they should be doing to keep the program in place.

Surprises leap from Russell’s pages. One was the fact that striped bass breeding amidst pilings of abandoned piers on New York’s west side stopped construction of the multi-billion-dollar Westway highway project.

Sadly, “Striper Wars” is not all good news. Bass now carry undiagnosed diseases. They are starved by food shortages. Habitats deteriorate under loads of chemical runoffs from farms and suburbia.

But, through it all, the message in “Striper Wars” is that striped bass are a magical fish that induce the love and support of thousands of sportsmen. We who fished them in the ’70s often prided ourselves in how many ‘pounds’ we caught (and sold). Today’s striped bass fisherman releases most of his catch.

It’s a different world, but hopefully one that will protect stripers for future anglers.

Dick Russell, author of “Striper Wars,” to lecture on August 4

The Audubon Society of Rhode Island will host a lecture and book signing by author and activist Dick Russell, author of “Striper Wars,” on Thursday, August 4 at the Audubon Society’s Environmental Education Center in Bristol. The event begins promptly at 7 p.m. and will be the author’s only speaking engagement in Rhode Island.

The event is free and open to the public, but because of seating limitation, reservations are recommended.

“Striper Wars” was published in June by Island Press and is a compelling account of the successful effort to save the striped bass from extinction and the battles it continues to face. For his efforts on behalf off the striped bass, Mr. Russell was awarded the Chevron Conservation Award. Mr. Russell is also the author of “Eye of the Whale,” which was named Best Book of 2001 by the Los Angeles Times, Washington Posy and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Both books will be available for purchase.

For more information or to reserve a seat, please call 245-7500, ext. 18. The Audubon Society Environmental Education Center is located at 1401 Hope Street (Rte. 114) in Bristol. Visit their website at www.asri.org.

Title: Striper Wars: An American Fish Story
Author: Dick Russell
Publisher: Island Press; Washington, D.C., 2005
Edition: Hardcover; $26.95

by Will Barbeau