How the striped bass survived and thrived: A true fish story

A conservationist writes, in vivid prose, of the struggle to protect the rockfish and a new threat it faces.

The striped bass – dubbed by author Dick Russell the “most confounding of fish” – is a success story like no other.

According to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates the fish and, in fact, owes its existence to the fish, it is now “fully recovered.”

In just 15 years, the “resource,” as the commission so blandly calls this amazing creature, was rebuilt from a historic low to a historic high.

The commission also mentions, in what has to be a case of understatement like no other, that the rebuilding “did not occur without hardships.”

Hardships to the commercial fishermen and the recreational anglers, to be sure. They have endured a multitude of restrictions on who could catch a striped bass, when they could, and how they could, and how big the fish had to be.

But what about the hardships to the conservationists? According to Russell’s fascinating book, Striper Wars, they fought for years to protect the fish from rampaging utility companies, runaway highway projects, even the mob.

This book is one of the most amazing fish stories I’ve ever come across, and that’s counting John McPhee’s sturgeon book, John Hersey’s exploration of the bluefish, and Mark Kurlansky’s ode to the lowly cod.

It’s a conservation textbook, a testament to human fortitude and wily tactics, not to mention a splendid yarn about a fish that Russell calls the aquatic equivalent of the bald eagle.

The curtain rises in the 1980s, when Russell, an outdoor writer, and others noticed a paucity of landings. It wasn’t just bad fishing luck. The striped bass, also known as the rockfish, had taken a nosedive.

This also wasn’t just any old croaker or sea robin. It was a “famously wise, tasty and graceful” species that has lured anglers from the lowly to the presidential, from the first George W. to the current one.

Russell soon joined a cadre of newly hatched activists – a postman and a lure maker, among others – and became a champion of the fish.

It wasn’t just a matter of restricting commercial and recreational landings, although that fight was big enough in itself.

Meetings turned into melees with state troopers on guard. Epithets were hurled.

In a battle with a utility that wanted to build along prime spawning territory in the Hudson, they discovered studies that a scientist witness conveniently forgot. They found copies of photographs, which supposedly had been destroyed, of dead fish.

In the next round, with a Manhattan highway project that would have filled in another vital chunk of river, they exposed consultants who deliberately massaged the data, prompting a federal judge to note: “I have sentenced people to prison in securities-fraud cases where the conduct was less blatant.”

In the process, the nation’s riverkeeper program was begun. A judicial ruling established the right of citizens to sue the government. Companies and public entities are now required to do environmental impact studies as part of development proposals. New attention was focused on PCBs.

All because of a fish.

Russell’s account is one of advocacy, not balance. He hardly goes out of his way to present the side of, say, the commercial fishermen who faced losing their livelihood. But that’s also part of what makes this book so rousing.

Russell must have kept copious notes throughout. His details are impressive.

He also writes vividly, with a splendid sense of drama and, not least, a love of the fish.

Witness as the gravid female slowly sinks below the surface of churning water as a group of males thrashes about her. Nudged by the males, “she begins to expel a pale river of eggs… each one a translucent green sphere covered by an amber globule of oil, the size of tiny pearls.”

In 1995, the fisheries commission declared the striped bass “fully recovered.”

Alas, only the year before, anglers and biologists had begun to note lesions on striped bass in Chesapeake Bay, one of their prime spawning habitats.

Scientists have since identified a bacteria that can trigger a chronic wasting disease in fish. What they don’t know is why it kills striped bass while other fish seem unaffected.

Oddly enough, while overfishing of the striped bass was a prime culprit in the ’80s, some now blame overfishing of a different species for the striper’s current difficulty.

In the bay, the fish’s prime food is menhaden, also caught by the netload and processed to provide omega-3 oil for humans and feed for livestock.

The loss of menhaden is a double whammy for the striper. At the same time it is almost literally starving, its habitat is being polluted by the waste from Delmarva chickens that also eat the menhaden.

Neither Russell – nor anyone else – can foretell the future for this fish.

He writes: “The intricate web that nature has woven into and around the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem – where what happens to algae, menhaden, striped bass, and children is all interrelated – humans can rapidly rend asunder.”

Contact Inquirer staff writer Sandy Bauers at 610-701-7635 or