Fishing for the Future

Striper Wars: An American Fish Story. Dick Russell. x + 358 pp. Island Press, 2005. $26.95.

Can a book about a single species or genus of fish teach us more about ourselves and our interrelationships with our environment than it does about that fish? “Yes” is the answer suggested by a rapidly growing literary genre that includes Mark Kurlansky’s influential Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World(1997), Richard Schweid’s Consider the Eel (2002), John McPhee’s 2002 book The Founding Fish (starring American shad), and a veritable bookcase about American salmon, including such fine works as A Common Fate: Endangered Salmon and the People of the Pacific Northwest (1995), by Joseph Cone, and Salmon Without Rivers: A History of the Pacific Salmon Crisis (1999), by Jim Lichatowich. To this genre we must now add Dick Russell’s wonderfully rich and provocative Striper Wars: An American Fish Story.

This is an exciting, albeit somewhat disorganized, account of perhaps the greatest success story in marine conservation: the restoration of Atlantic striped bass, a species that, like salmon, normally breeds in fresh water and spends its adult life in salt water—and one that in the early 1980s seemed headed for doom. Thanks to the victorious battles narrated here, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) in 1995 officially declared the species to be “fully recovered.” But the story has not ended, and the ending may not be happy.

Menhaden are vital to the diet of striped bass. (From Striper Wars)

As Russell demonstrates, many of the stripers teeming along much of the Atlantic seaboard are malnourished and are therefore rapidly becoming infected with Pfiesteria piscicida (a dinoflagellate popularly known as “the cell from hell”) and—more ominously—a dozen different species of mycobacteria. Why? Evidently because at the same time that we were allowing stripers to become abundant, we were also allowing the destruction of their most vital source of food, menhaden. A prime component of the diet of many other prized Atlantic coast fish as well as birds, menhaden are filter feeders crucial to the ecological health of many Atlantic bays and estuaries. With the range of menhaden collapsing, and with 70 percent of the catch now coming from the Virginia waters of the Chesapeake Bay, the stripers’ prime spawning area, that crucial estuary is itself in serious danger.

Striped bass have been a powerful force in Russell’s own life, and he has been a significant force in the contemporary life of the species. He has been a leader in the growing alliance of recreational anglers, environmentalists and marine biologists who waged the battles that rescued the species. He identifies himself specifically as one of the millions of those recreational anglers for whom the striped bass is “the premier gamefish to pursue.” Russell, like John McPhee, makes his own decades-long ardent passion for his chosen species of fish central to the story he tells, thus highlighting an irony of Striper Wars: The survival of striped bass as a significant species depends on those legions who hunt it, whose duality of predator and savior is dramatically personified by the author himself.

Although this volume does not pretend to be a natural history of striped bass, Russell projects a vivid and moving picture of the mating, reproduction and migration of the fish, infusing the narrative with his sense of wonder at their dazzling beauty, grace, power and voracious ferocity as a predator. One important anatomical detail that is skipped (an omission that is especially unfortunate for readers who have never handled a striper) is the absence of functional teeth, a crucial factor that determines how stripers must feed and digest (and how one fishes for them).

After defining this “intrinsically American fish” as “the aquatic equivalent of the American bald eagle,” Russell sketches its roller-coaster history prior to the beginning of the modern striper “wars.” Early colonists of the Eastern seaboard were astonished by the abundance, size and delectability of striped bass. These are the very qualities that have made stripers especially alluring targets for overfishing (which began in the 19th century), but they are also the qualities that have inspired and activated the fish’s defenders when it has been imperiled. Stripers, because of their tremendous fecundity and adaptability, have managed to survive even in heavily polluted waters, have been transplanted successfully from New Jersey to the West Coast, and at times have even flourished—whenever we have given them a modicum of protection from ourselves.

Commercial overfishing has been only the most obvious threat to striped bass, as well as to the myriads of other marine species now imperiled by human behavior. In the three main battlegrounds in what Russell aptly calls the striper wars—the Hudson River, the California Delta and Chesapeake Bay—the menaces have sometimes been less blatant and far more politically potent.

On the Hudson alone, General Electric for decades poisoned the river and its fish with transformer coolant laden with polychlorinated biphenyls (better known as PCBs); Consolidated Edison’s Indian Point nuclear plant for years sucked in millions of stripers; millions more would have been annihilated by Con Ed’s proposed additional power plant 15 miles farther upriver, at Storm King; and a prime sanctuary for juvenile stripers would have been obliterated if the vast Westway project to fill in part of the river along the western shore of Manhattan had not been derailed, thanks largely to the champions of striped bass.

Although stripers have somehow managed to survive the torrents of industrial pollutants pouring into San Francisco Bay (their main Pacific habitat), their numbers have plummeted as hundreds of millions have been slaughtered by massive pumping of water from the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers to irrigate megafarms. What now threatens the viability of striped bass in the Chesapeake, and therefore as an Atlantic species, is a fatally synergistic combination: Chemical runoffs (especially nitrogen) pour into the bay from suburban lawns, golf courses and huge poultry farms where chickens are fed hundreds of thousands of tons of ground-up menhaden stripped from the bay. These runoffs produce deadly overgrowths of algae. These overgrowths mushroom because the menhaden that would have fed on the algae have been ground up to feed the chickens.

The heart of this volume is its engrossing and sometimes thrilling narrative of the burgeoning movement against all these menaces. Russell reveals the surprising roles played by stripers and their champions in the initiation of key environmental legislation, judicial decisions and other government oversight. Concern over the survival of stripers inspired the formation of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in 1942. The fierce battle to stop Con Ed’s proposed plant at the base of Storm King Mountain, adjoining one of the Hudson River’s main striper spawning areas, was won in 1965 with the first court decision recognizing “environmental standing”—that is, the right of citizens to sue a government agency to protect natural resources. This judicial principle then became federal law in the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which requires all federal agencies to consider the full environmental impact of all proposed projects.

When commercial overfishing threatened the viability of stripers in the early 1980s, the resulting struggles in several Atlantic coast states prompted Congress to pass the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act of 1984, the first-ever federal intervention in “a fisheries management crisis in traditional state waters.” Then in 1990, the federal government took the action that proved to be the key to the stripers’ resurrection: banning all commercial and recreational fishing for striped bass in the exclusive economic zone of the United States—that is, the waters under federal control stretching beyond the three-mile limit (inside which fishing jurisdiction is generally conceded to the states) out to 200 miles from shore. The defenders of striped bass are now battling to keep that prohibition in place and to extend some of the principles won in the striper wars to provide protection for the most important of all Atlantic species: menhaden.

Dramatizing the evolution of these struggles decade after decade, Russell demonstrates how they contributed to a rapidly widening environmental movement, one that was moving steadily toward an “ecosystem approach” to the human role in the environment. Coined in the 1980s, this term was formally adopted by the United Nations at its 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. Applied to the marine environment, an ecosystem approach demands that we transcend our dominant practice of making management decisions about each species separately from all others and from their larger environment. Striper Wars convincingly argues that our decisions must be based on the interactive relations of all species, including our own, within an environment influenced by multiple forces, human and natural.

Reviewer Information

H. Bruce Franklin is the John Cotton Dana Professor of English and American Studies at Rutgers University-Newark. He is the author or editor of 18 books, including War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination (Oxford University Press, 1990) and Vietnam and Other Fantasies (University of Massachusetts Press, 2000). His essay on menhaden, “The Most Important Fish in the Sea,” was included in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2002(Houghton Mifflin).