The Comeback Fish

The thrill of a strike and feeling of holding a rod while trying to reel in a striped bass is a thrill many fishermen find hard to explain beyond acknowledging a respect and appreciation for these intelligent and noble fish. However, environmental journalist Dick Russell explains in his new book, “Striper Wars,” that 20 years ago the future of the striped bass was in extreme jeopardy.

Russell, an active sport fisherman, describes the striped bass as being a magical fish.

“It’s a feeling you have when you catch a striped bass,” said Russell, who lives in Boston and grew up fishing for striped bass on Martha’s Vineyard. “They are not only big fish and a challenge to catch, there is an internal kind of connection that’s invisible like the realm they inhabit.”

It was the plight of the striped bass whose populations were being decimated by commercial overfishing that motivated Russell to begin a movement to save the fish from extinction.

“The striped bass changed my life,” said Russell, who started his career in journalism writing for TV Guide.

Russell is on the Cape next week, giving talks about his book and his efforts to preserve the species.

In “Striper Wars,” Russell details the grassroots efforts he started in the 1970s to save the striped bass. Those efforts included lobbying for state and federal regulations and working with diverse people including scientists, fishermen and the public to build a coalition to save the fish, while fighting against special interest groups from the fishing industry.

“It’s a story I had always wanted to tell,” he said, explaining that it’s hard for many people to recall the peril the striped bass was in more than 20 years ago.

In his book, Russell describes how overfishing in Chesapeake Bay – the primary breeding ground for the fish – and along the coastal Mid-Atlantic and New England states was decimating the populations. Russell’s efforts to protect the striped bass were successful in getting states to impose increased size limits in 1982 on the taking of striped bass and shortly thereafter a three- to five-year moratorium on all fishing.

The striped bass was in no small part responsible for some of the nation’s most important environmental protection laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act and the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act. Protecting striped bass habitat was the main reason the huge Westway highway project proposal in New York City was defeated in the 1980s. The Hudson River is another breeding ground for striped bass and it was discovered that the abandoned piers along the west side of Manhattan had become an ideal location for the fish.

“The fish has made such a great comeback,” said Russell, who is concerned that once again the striped bass is in danger.

Russell said overfishing of menhaden, a smaller fish in the herring family also known as “pogies” and “bunker,” in Chesapeake Bay on the Virginia side has severely depleted an important food source for the striped bass. Without regulations, menhaden could also be fished to extinction. The lack of food is suspected as one of the causes of a bacterial wasting disease that is affecting 70 percent of the striped bass in Chesapeake Bay and the lower weights and size of fish being caught. Large numbers of striped bass are also being caught and killed as by-catch during off-shore commercial industrial fishing operations.

“You have to look at the whole ecosystem,” said Russell of how to protect the striped bass and manage fisheries. “Twenty years ago we didn’t know what an ecosystem was.”

Still, Russell proves that one person can make a difference in protecting the environment and that relationships and coalitions are the key.

“You find allies along the way,” he said, explaining that during his years to save the striped bass he found other people who were concerned and wanted to do something. “They just needed a catalyst.”

To other would-be environmentalists looking to take on a cause or issue, Russell has a simple piece of advice.

“You just need to know there are other kindred species out there,” he said.

Author Dick Russell will be giving talks about his new book and his experiences saving the striped bass July 15 at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution; July 18 at Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in Brewster; and July 19 at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies.