He’s a veteran journalist and activist. He recently appeared at North Cover Outfitters, in Old Saybrook, for a slide presentation and book signing of his latest work, Striper Wars: An American Fish Story (Island Press). He’s Dick Russell.
This is what Russell had to say about Striper Wars: “Actually, the book is twofold. One is the story of the big fight I was involved in, and was one of the leaders of, back in the 1980s, when bass were disappearing completely from the Atlantic Coast waters. [Our goal] was to try to cut back on the fishing pressure and give the fish a chance to come back. So, the first half of the book is the story of how that battle went from state to state, starting in Massachusetts and moving along the coast and finding allies among many fisherman to help in this fight. It went on for over two years and eventually Rhode Island declared a moratorium on any striped bass fishing. Then Maryland shut down any fishing for striped bass for five years. That story has been called the biggest success story in the history fishery-management issue. The book deals with the amazing people who got involved in the fight and what it took and how Congress got involved.”
The second half of the book is about what’s happening to today’s stripers. Put plainly, they’re in trouble again: More than seventy percent of the striped bass population is suffering from a chronic bacterial infection in the spawning waters of Chesapeake Bay. “It seems to be linked to stress and that they aren’t getting enough to eat.” Russell explained. “The menhaden, the bass’s food of choice, is being over-fished in the Chesapeake Bay region by this one big, particular corporation.”
As for writing Striper Wars, Russell said that it was both difficult and easy. It was easy because he had already accumulated ma-terial from notes and articles he had written several years ago about saving striped bass. He said, “I always wanted to put that material together. So that part wasn’t hard to write.” It was difficult because of the extensive research he did concerning the problems stripers face today. He talked with several scientists, he said, “to understand what’s going on with this bacterial infection.” He traveled, widely, too. One of the cities he visited was Reedville, Virginia. “It’s in Reedville where the factory fishing operation that’s going after the menhaden is based.”
One of Russell’s literary influences is Carl Safina, author of Song for the Blue Ocean and Eye of the Albatross. “He’s a scientist I know. He’s just an amazing writer,” Russell noted. Another is Teri Tempest-Williams. “She’s done beautiful, evocative work in environmental literature.” Still another is Richard Ellis. “He has done great work on the oceans. There’s a devastating work he wrote titled The Empty Ocean.” Norman Mailer and Henry Miller have also influenced Russell. “I just love Henry Miller. People look at him, you know, as some kind of pornographer. But that isn’t true. He’s one of the most brilliant writers, I think, America has ever had.”
Think deeply about Russell’s final words. They’re cautionary. They’re also prophetic. “It’s so important today, in terms of conserving our oceans and fisheries, to take a holistic outlook. We must look at the whole eco system – in terms of climate change and pollution.”
He added that today, because many stripers are caught in ocean trawls, they can’t be sold. What happens is that “they’re dumped overboard dead. We have to look at these things very carefully these days. We can’t rest on our laurels. The fight to save the oceans is just beginning.”