Up the Creek

Anyone who fishes for stripers, or who is interested in the history of striped bass conservation needs to get a copy of Dick Russell’s new book, “Striper Wars, An American Fish Story.”

This 358-page, illustrated $26.95 hard cover book from Island Press, ISBN 1-55963-632-7, is a history of the fight to save a species, told from the point of view of one of the soldiers in that war, Dick Russell. The story is mostly about the war on a federal level, with sidelights from the northeast, where Russell spends about half of the year fishing for, and writing about, striped bass. Much of the information centers on the Chesapeake Bay, and Maryland DNR manager’s moves to support a continuing commercial fishery in spite of the striper crash that began in the late 1970, and worsened in the early 1980s, resulting in our 5-1/2 year moratorium.

Russell lionizes some of my personal heroes in the striper crash, hatchery-recovery effort, and restoration. Included are DNR biologists: Joe Boone, who ran the striped bass juvenile index survey (also called the young-of-the-year, or “YOY” index) for over 30 years; Ben Florence, who openly said the fishery should be closed down – and paid for it by having his career sidelined; and Jim Uphoff, whose straightforward and open statements about the impending crash caused DNR management (who sided with the commercials, and tried to keep the fishery open), to come down so hard on Jim that he hired a lawyer and sued to get them to back down.

I’d like to add some civilians to my hero list, too, all mentioned in Russell’s book: past Governor Harry Hughes, then-DNR Secretary Dr. Torrey Brown, who declared the striper-saving moratorium. Also Jim Price, and one not mentioned, the late Bob Lord. It was a petition for Maryland Threatened Species Classification by charter Captains Jim Price of Oxford and Bob Lord of Ocean City that became the enabling document allowing Dr. Brown to declare a moratorium on striper fishing, effective December 31, 1984.

So far, I’ve read about 2/3 of the “Striper Wars” book, and can’t wait to finish the rest, but I wanted to bring it to your attention as soon as possible. The last third of the book gets into the menhaden issue, and the need for multi-species management.

I met Joe Boone and Jim Uphoff years ago at Hog Island on the Choptank River when they and Don Cosden were doing the annual YOY survey. They pulled a 100-foot seine twice at a one-hour interval, and counted every critter in the net. They did the same at 21 different sites in spawning reaches around Maryland’s part of the Bay in July, August, and September. The average number of YOY stripers caught per haul became the annual YOY index, at that time a reliable predictor of the commercial catch three years later, allowing for fish growth. While the YOY index is still important, other, less reliable computer programs have taken over. VPA, or Virtual Population Analysis, is one such program – one that says there are plenty of weakfish, when fishermen know differently.

At Hog Neck that September day in 1983, the biologists predicted the index would be less than 3, when the all-time average was 8.4. “Striped bass spawning was a near failure two out of the last three years,” Boone said, “and that’s what there is intense concern among all of us.” (From my 1990 book, “Chesapeake Stripers”). Uphoff also commented. These quotes, which I asked permission to use, got the biologists in a whole heap of trouble.

Boone was not hesitant to give other writers like Russell similar quotes, like his 1984 “Fishing Forecast” taken from Russell’s book: “… Naturally, self interest and politics permeate every phase of harvest deliberations. Management becomes cumbersome, chaotic, and exasperatingly slow, even in times of perceived emergency. What is every state’s responsibility is no one’s responsibility.” Boone told me essentially the same thing at Hog Neck, but I didn’t have the sense to write it down.

Jim Uphoff ran afoul of Lee Zeni, then DNR fisheries manager, when Zeni accused him of being the leak for a number of stripers-are-crashing stories. But, Uphoff wasn’t the leak. “Zeni tried to scare me into confessing,” Uphoff says in Russell’s book, “There are procedures to dismiss you, but we’re letting you go this time.” Uphoff told Zeni, “It wasn’t me. You have problems with your entire staff.” So, Uphoff hired a lawyer and submitted a grievance.

The Baltimore Sun blasted Zeni and the Tidewater Administration: “Those who muzzle their staff to hide the truth are themselves subverting the public cause. It is they who bring shame to the age-old and honorable role of civil servant.”

An apology was issued to Uphoff after that. “I do think there’s an understanding now that there’s a right to speak up without being persecuted,” Uphoff told the Sun.

Ben Florence was called “Mr. Rockfish” by many, based on his knowledge of this great fish. Ben was another fearless DNR biologist. He told it like it was when the fish were crashing. There was an anecdote I’ve tried to substantiate about Ben and then-Governor Harry Hughes fishing together on a charterboat. The Governor asked Ben’s opinion what to do about rockfish. “Shut it down,” Ben replied, according to my source. Unfortunately, Pete Jensen, a fisheries manager who has been in and out of the DNR several times, was standing nearby and heard Ben’s statement. Pete had been a big supporter of commercial fishing for stripers for many years. This did not bode well for Ben, who many said should have been Fisheries Director.

Ben was later put in charge of the striped bass recovery program at the DNR’s Manning Hatchery, where he and his federal partner, Charlie Wooley of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service raised and tagged striper fingerlings for release into their natal waters as part of the recovery program. Out of the frying pan and into a better job, one that played a major part in the recovery.

Jim Price, another hero of mine, has been involved in fisheries affairs even before he was legislative chairman for the Maryland Charterboat Association. His family were commercial fishermen on the Choptank River for several generations. Jim and his late brother Bill, a commercial netter, were sitting in a diner discussing a dismal morning of gill netting for cow stripers to send to biologist Skip Bason’s hatchery in Delaware. We caught naught. “If I can’t catch fish in the Choptank,” Bill admitted, “Somebody better damn-sight close it down!”

Lately, Jim Price has concentrated on the menhaden problem. He is also mentioned in Russell’s book.

Essentially, what we did in bringing back large numbers of stripers as menhaden numbers were crashing; this was definitely not multi-species management. It was like inviting all those stripers to dinner with only two pogies on the plate. Malnourished stripers have been Price’s concern since he found the first skinny, diseased stripers several years ago. Russell’s book goes into malnourishment as a cause for mycobacteriosis and other striper ills.

After much data analysis and several times testifying before the ASMFC’s Menhaden Management Board, Price is certain that slow-moving organization will not act on a plan that will cut the menhaden catch any time soon. He will soon file for Threatened Species classification for menhaden with the Maryland DNR and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

There were many other activists and heroes in the striper wars, too many to mention here. And, too many more details that must be left out for space considerations. Many other events are detailed in my out-of-print “Chesapeake Stripers” book.

However, striper fishermen everywhere need to get a copy of Russell’s book, “Striper Wars.” Read it, memorize every page, and get active in striper conservation, or else we will be condemned to repeating history.

If you buy a copy of Russell’s book, please – after reading it – place it on the shelf next to my “Chesapeake Stripers” book. That would make me mighty proud.