Saving the Bass

Writer Wages One-Man Crusade
To Stem Their Rapid Decline

Dick Russell remembers the first time. The 21-foot fishing skiff bobbed in the swell off the bluffs of Gay Read on Martha’s Vineyard. He was in the bow, casting a lure into the night.

“We were fishing the tide. There’s a feeling when he hits. Even before. You know it’s a striper.”

Russell, a Boston freelance writer who once worked for Sports Illustrated, these days doesn’t write as much as he should or play with his 5-year-old son enough: He is on a personal crusade to save striped bass.

The mission takes him to Washington to argue with federal panels and to Annapolis and Providence and New York to argue with state panels wrestling with ways to stem a precipitous, 10-year coastwide decline of stripers. Often he comes to Maryland, where the majority of stripers are born.

But in his travels, he never forgets the feeling when that first, 61/2 -pound striper came over the side and into his capture almost a decade ago.

“I’d fished three years before I caught one. I was going crazy inside. My friend held it up and said, ‘You caught a bass, Dick. You caught a bass.’

“It’s a moment that lives forever,” said Russell, his eyes aglow. “When that strange communication, that feeling, is threatened and might never happen again, for, me, for my friends and my children, then I can do nothing else but devote my life to it.

“To have it, to hold it, to have it for dinner, that’s the greatest gift, and you have to give something back.”

No other fish is the same, said Russell. The striper, wild denizen of rivers, bays and the wide Atlantic, “is a symbol of everything that’s meaningful about life on this planet.” It’s hard to locate, harder to fool, selective and subtle about where it goes and what it feeds on. To catch a wary striper is an achievement, to cook and eat one a celebration.

Russell was in Annapolis and Washington last week to plead his case, first before a federal striped bass emergency panel and later to natural resources officials in Maryland, where the striper has its ancestral home, Chesapeake Bay, and is called rockfish, the state fish.

Russell is “emotional,” in the eyes of Dr. John Boreman, one of the leading federal biologists studying the decline of the striper in the East. And that emotionalism has thrust him into a war of wills with politicians who say they want to do what they can to save the striper. Boreman believes they must do more.

Biologists studying the decline (in a decade, the catch in Maryland has dropped from 5 million pounds a year to less than a tenth of that) say the best thing that could happen to bolster stocks is a total moratorium on catching and keeping rock, both commercially and for personal consumption, in every state in the East until rockfish reproduction improves.

But elected officials say that’s politically impossible and have set their sights on a more gradual decline in striper mortality. Among other things, Maryland politicians say they can’t see their way clear to putting out of business a group that is a historical mainstay of the Free State-watermen.

Watermen are flag-waving, God-fearing, hard-working vestiges of the dying age of free plunder of the waterways. There is little free plunder left, but Maryland Tidewater Administrator Lee Zeni still believes marine resources are there to be used. “Do we want to have the fish out there just to say we have them?” he asked rhetorically.

Russell says yes. “The federal government should step in and declare a moratorium.” Failing that, he believes the states should ban striper fishing, and he testified Friday before the Maryland General Assembly in behalf of a moratorium bill proposed by State Sen. Gerald Winegrad (D-Anne Arundel). But neither state nor federal proposal is given much chance of success.

To Russell and other environmentalists concerned with the decline, rockfish are a strong, wise and beautiful resource to be used when they are abundant and jealously protected when they are not. He’s willing to give up his fondest pleasure to that end, but it rankles him when at the same time rockfish are piled high in the markets, iced, their eyes glazed, waiting for a buyer.

He was busy when he came to Annapolis and didn’t get around. If he’d had time for a drive he might have seen a sign of the times to horrify him on the marquee at the Annapolis Produce Market.

“Fresh Rockfish,” it said, “$2.29 a pound.

“While They Last!”