The fall and rise of a great game fish

An American Fish Story

DICK RUSSELL could not have picked a more appropriate title for his splendid account of the conflicts that have been waged on many and varying battlefields over the most popular, most controversial and perhaps greatest inshore game fish of the Atlantic Coast.

Known in Chesapeake Bay country and in most of Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina simply as rockfish, the striped bass is the workingman’s (and workingwoman’s) fish. It is sought from shorelines, beaches, piers, jetties and small boats throughout the coasts inshore waters. It’s the same fish that is also known as striper or bass.

The overall economic impact of the hundreds of thousands perhaps millions of East Coast anglers who target the species is measured in the billions of dollars. And their annual haul, now stable because of widespread catch-and-release practices, is in the millions of pounds.

The fish is also the centerpiece of what is widely regarded, even by many marine scientists, as the greatest conservation success story ever. Most agree that the striper’s renaissance has been greater than that of the American whitetail deer or Eastern wild turkey, both once hunted almost into extinction in some areas.

Because of excessive catches by commercial and recreational fishermen, coupled with pollution and habitat loss, the stripers numbers plummeted so precipitously that a moratorium was declared in 1983 on keeping any wild East Coast rockfish .
Once the moratorium was lifted, stringent controls were enacted, state by state, to limit commercial and recreational catches. Although somewhat relaxed, those controls remain in place. One result is that an encouraging catch-and-release attitude has developed widely on the recreational side.

Consequently, population growth has exploded. Concerns now exist that stripers are too plentiful, at least for the amount of food available to them.
As much as 70 percent of the Chesapeake Bay striped bass stock has been observed with bright red sores body lesions apparently caused by malnutrition according to some scientists.

Commercial fishermen say the problem can be alleviated by allowing them to catch more fish. Growing numbers of recreational fishermen contend the problem has been exacerbated because fishery managers allowed too many menhaden to be caught, greatly reducing the stripers primary food source, especially in the Chesapeake Bay.

Even as Dick Russell’s book was being written, Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey introduced a bill calling for game-fish status for all East Coast striped bass, meaning any sale would be illegal. The bill has yet to be acted on by the House of Representatives.
Getting to where we are today with the striper was not easy. It involved epic battles among conservationists, scientists, environmentalists, power companies, real estate developers, recreational fishermen, commercial fishermen, the owners of hydroelectric and water-supply dams, and politicians at every level .

The author has done a marvelous job of binding the heated back-room discussions, the state and federal court cases and the personal confrontations into a meticulously researched but easy-to-read tale.

Russell, a longtime environmental journalist, is the author of four books, including Eye of the Whale. Striper Wars was a natural for him, for he has been on the front lines for decades. He always took the side of the fish, not the fisherman.

He has been careful to limit this work to presenting the documented facts. He leaves any decision regarding the future of the striped bass to the reader .]

* Bob Hutchinson retired in 2001 after 37 years as the outdoor editor of The Virginian-Pilot.