Dick Russell is an unassuming amateur naturalist who grew up fishing for rockfish as a boy up on Martha’s Vineyard. In the 1970s, when the striper numbers plummeted off the charts, Dick got involved in the battle to save his favorite fish, and his new book chronicles these events.
The rockfish is truly an amazing creature whose story is a part of our nation’s saga. It inhabits the tidal waters along the Atlantic Coast from Nova Scotia to North Carolina, spawning in the Hudson River, Delaware Bay and the Chesapeake Bay. Stripers kept the colonists alive during their first year in America. The nation’s first conservation laws were aimed at protecting stripers. The first federal environmental impact study was focused on the striper decline. The first fish tested for PCBs was the striper, and this study culminated in a national ban of those poisonous plastics.
The striper story is primarily one of salvation. The states and federal governments often point with pride to the rockfish moratorium of the 1980s, which brought this gallant fish back from the brink of extinction. Scientists repeatedly use the rockfish management model as a touchstone for other endangered species, like menhaden.
But was it really an example of everyone coming together for the greater good? And did the subsequent five-year moratorium on catching stripers really ensure their survival?
All Hell Broke Loose
The striper ban came about after a recreational fisherman named Bob Pond, the inventor of the first wooden plug — known as the Atom Lure — filed a petition with the federal government asking that stripers be placed on the Endangered Species List. After that, all hell broke loose.
The West Side Highway in New York City came under attack because it would have removed docks where most juvenile stripers over-wintered. Sports Illustrated then did a stinging exposé on stripers being sucked into the cooling tubes of the Indian Point nuclear reactor. Finally the conservationists went after the trap-net fishermen of Rhode Island, who had three members on the Atlantic Marine Fisheries Commission, using their position to stymie all attempts at reducing catch limits on stripers.
The folks from Stripers Unlimited then filed ethics charges against the Rhode Island fishermen, claiming they had a conflict of interest. The sport fishermen won in federal court. Then a crazy thing happened. The Rhode Island trap netters selfishly said, Well, if we can’t catch stripers, then no one can. They immediately supported a rockfish ban along the entire Atlantic, and America’s greatest game-management story was born. Striper numbers went from four million to 56 million in a few short years, and the natural order was restored.
Or was it?
Happily Ever After?
The latest fish surveys indicate that almost 70 percent of the rockfish along the Atlantic seaboard are slowly dying from a microbacterial infection that manifests itself in a myriad of ways. Some stripers have misshapen humps in their backs, while others have pink lesions that can infect humans who touch them. Still others have tail fins that look like they have been nibbled away. Scientists call this the wasting disease, and it is fatal.
There are tons of infected rockfish. The culprit this time around seems, once again, to be over-harvesting, but not of rockfish. Now over-harvested are the menhaden on which the stripers depend upon for their daily diet. Menhaden numbers are way down, and fishery scientists believe this has stressed the stripers to the point where they have contracted the wasting disease.
The menhaden fishermen say this is all a load of hooey and refuse to consider harvesting caps. They point to dead zones, urban and farm runoff, sewer treatment plants and population pressure from the 16 million people living in the watershed as the real culprits for the striper decline.
And so we come full circle. Recreational fishermen are filing petitions with the federal government, asking that rockfish be put on the Endangered Species List once again. The feds and Atlantic Marine Fisheries Commission have waded into the fray. It’s anybody’s guess how this will all play out.
The thing that strikes me about this crazy fish story is just how tenuous life around the Chesapeake Bay is. Out there, under the surface of the tortured waters of the Bay, yesterday’s success story can turn into today’s failure.