Striper Wars

“Striper Wars, An American Fish Story,” is the latest book by talented environmental writer Dick Russell, and was just released only a month ago. It is an absolute “must read” for any striped bass fishermen.

I’m not kidding; there is so much to learn through these 316 pages that when you’re done, you might feel you just completed a full-semester college course at a very fine college taught by the most brilliant of professors.

Russell probably knows as much or more about striped bass and their struggles to survive in our world than anyone else on this planet. If you like typical “warfare sagas,” as a bonus, you’ll enjoy it even more.

I couldn’t recommend this book any higher. It is really a great read and so enormously enlightening.

The only possible downside is that you’ll quickly discover our striped bass populations today are positively still in harms way and the “war” is hardly over. We must do all we can to insure they don’t go exactly the same way as the already extinct passenger pigeon. The battlefield may have changed somewhat in the past 30-odd years, but this conflict continues to rage.

I admit too it’s sometimes unsettling reading for you’re going to realize that vital decisions made to protect and maintain these magnificent fish so often are not based upon the best scientific wisdom, but instead involve purely political or economic motives. That is so frightening a concept, but Russell makes it unquestionably evident that it happens time and time again throughout this latest work.

Much of the book centers on our own strain of stripers here in the Chesapeake Bay, but full attention is also given to the plight of the native bass populations in the Hudson River, those fish migrating all along the east coast plus more transplanted stocks now out in California’s waters.

The original crusade in modern times to protect striped bass occurred back in the late 1970s and early 1980s when overfishing and pollution plus habitat loss caused striper populations to plummet all along the Atlantic seaboard from Maine to the Carolinas. In 1983, commercial landings of striped bass around here had dropped nearly 90-percent from just the decade before and total extinction was a real possibility.

Something drastic obviously had to be done but so many roadblocks were put in the way to the best course of action. Those obstructions came from politicians, commercial interests and even the New York Mafia.

Russell tells one story in this book about a meeting decades ago attended by a group of scientists working for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) who, at the time, were pondering more stringent striper regulations to protect the remaining breeding population. One day, they were greeted by an unexpected visitor in a three-piece suit. This man addressed the group and told them that his uncle had set him up in business with the Fulton Fish Market in New York City and “would be very unhappy if we did anything to hurt that business.”

Russell also tells the reader how even the Army Corps of Engineers and the New York State Department of Transportation deliberately betrayed and misinformed the public and the courts with false and deceptive statistics and information. In one example, the Corps told a judge that their studies indicated that only a very small percentage (10-percent) of striper eggs would be sucked into an intake pipe they had proposed for a power plant in a river with a spring striper nursery.

However, when environmental experts carefully examined that data, it was discovered that the figures the Army Corps of Engineers arrived at had “supposed” that the eggs would only pass once in front of that intake pipe. This river was tidal in that sector. In reality, those eggs more likely would have passed 10 times or more in front of the intake pipe.

If this thing had been allowed to be built (it wasn’t), there would have been 100-percent annihilation of the entire striper population in time from that valuable spawning site.

Maryland’s own Department of Natural Resources isn’t portrayed either in the most dazzling of benevolent light by Mr. Russell.

The author candidly points out some skeletons in a few of Maryland’s DNR managerial closets. Pete Jensen, then the head of Tidal Fisheries, had attended a Watermen’s Association trade show about 25-years ago and, astoundingly, his wife won their big raffle that year ᾢ a new pickup truck. Russell writes, “Shortly thereafter, Jensen … lifted a spring spawning area closure that Florence (his predecessor) had put in place the year before and opened thousands of new acres to commercial netting at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds.”

Russell later interviewed Jensen and asked him about that truck. I quote again now from his book: “’Yes, she won a pickup truck they were raffling off. We chose not to take it,’ he replied. Why was that? I asked. ‘We didn’t want it.’ So the Jensens didn’t receive anything? ‘Oh yeah, we received something, but we chose not to take the truck.’”

There were other tales about additional payoffs to commercial watermen in the form of lucrative research contracts and more shady deeds perpetrated over the years by Maryland’s DNR. You can be sure our DNR today would very much rather you don’t read these stories.

Governor Ehrlich, in June 2004, asked Pete Jensen to continue working at DNR, now even higher up the management ladder, as Associate Deputy Secretary.

Larry Simms, the current President of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, is also mentioned in Russell’s book. When Simms was a lobbyist for that same organization he now leads, Russell quotes from a speech Mr. Simms gave to the state legislature, “As long as the rock (bass) will support a commercial fishery, that’s proof the fishery is not dying. Would we catch the last fish that swims, like a lot of people claim? Oh, probably we would, but only if it were economically feasible. Only a sport fisherman can afford to catch the last fish.”

Despite the many hurdles back in the early 1980s, Maryland did finally do the right thing and all fishermen accepted a total moratorium on the catching of any striped bass by anyone. In only a few years, the fish population rebounded astonishingly but sadly, they are in grave trouble once again.

Our striped bass today are sick. Studies indicate that fully 70-percent of the Chesapeake’s resident stripers suffer from infection. They sometimes display external lesions or sores but their internal organs are being slowly destroyed by a disease called mycrobacteriosis and it is absolutely killing them.

Natural mortality in striped bass was never more than maybe 20-percent of the total population. Now, so many of these fish are dying well short of their full life expectancy of 30 or more years.


Nobody knows for sure, but scientists do understand many of our resident stripers are currently starving and any organism so stressed is a prime candidate for infection. Only ten years ago, menhaden accounted for between 37 and 66 percent of the Chesapeake Bay stripers’ diet. Today, that number is down closer to 20-percent. Only one company, with facilities in Reedville, Virginia, called Omega Protein, is taking millions of tons of menhaden every year out of Virginia’s portion of the bay. The ASMFC is currently seeking public comments before imposing some kind of restrictions on this “reduction fishery.” The plan on the table at the moment by ASMFC calls for a “harvest cap” of the average of the last five years of Omega’s total yearly hauls, but many scientists out there today think that’s not near enough controls.

Omega’s position, as should be no surprise, is that no restrictions should be implemented and the menhaden stocks are all doing just fine, thank you. They believe the problem is rather we have too many stripers out there.

When you read Russell’s book you’ll learn that Omega is actually owned by a Houston-based company, the Zapata Corporation. Zapata is currently headed by a gentleman named Malcolm Glazer, the billionaire owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

You may have heard of him. However, that very same Zapata Corporation was initially founded by George H. W. Bush.

Everyone should certainly recognize that name.

You may know of his son too. This current President of the United States is accused by many in the “green community” to have the worst environmental record of any President from the last 100 years.

This striper war is ongoing friends, now with menhaden on the front lines, and there are some very heavy hitters shooting incredibly big guns at us from the other side.

“Striper Wars,” by Dick Russell, 2005, IslandPress/Shearwater Books, $26.95 at Borders, is a wonderful field manual to understand where we’ve been and in what direction to go.

God help us all, and that’s not to mention the possible final extinction of striped bass from our world, if we lose.

We came within a whisker of total destruction of our wild stripers not that long ago.

Please, let it not happen again.

Read this book and then write ASMFC and maybe send a copy to your elected representatives in Washington. E-mail me and I’ll happily pass along any address you can’t find.