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October 20, 2005

Striper Wars

Stephanie Showalter, The National Sea Grant Law Center

 

In his chronicle of the decades-long fight to save the striped bass, Dick Russell offers a first-hand account of the interplay of politics, public relations, and litigation that are present in all environment battles. The story of striped bass is also the story of Storm King mountain, the Westway Project, and Riverkeeper. It’s about George Mendonsa, a powerful commercial fishermen appointed to the Rhode Island Marine Fisheries Council with strong connections to Fulton Fish Market, and Bob Pond, the guilty inventor of the Atom Plug, an artificial lure quite popular with striped bass. It’s about recreational fishermen who organized and fought to save the fish they loved to catch. Russell’s account is filled with minor and fortuitous events - late-night phone calls, emergency meetings with government officials, newspaper articles, dinner conversations - that often spelled the difference between victory and defeat.

Striper Wars is truly an underdog story and Russell has the reader pulling for the striped bass from the very first chapter. It’s impossible not to want the little guys to win. Striped bass tipped the scales in the seminal Storm King case which established the right of citizen groups to sue to protect natural resources and set the stage for “environmental standing” - the bedrock of almost all current environmental litigation. Striped bass stopped a highway planned for Manhattan’s west side known as the Westway Project because the project would have a destroyed a significant amount of striped bass habitat in the Hudson River. Striper Wars is an invaluable primer on the importance and power of common citizen action.

In the end, Striper Wars is a cautionary tale. Striped bass may again be headed for trouble. Harvest levels have increased over the years and bycatch mortality is a serious problem. The striped bass’ preferred food, menhaden, is also overfished and some striped bass show signs of starvation. Pollution in the Hudson River and Chesapeake Bay and habitat loss remain perennial problems. Environmental victories take years to achieve, but are all too often fleeting. The lessons of the past must not be forgotten.


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