Fisheries management work never done

Catch: Recent success with rockfish is now endangered
by pollution and the decline of the menhaden population.
ON SEPT. 11, 1984, Maryland stunned the East Coast fishing community with a long-term ban on catching striped bass, or rockfish.

“I knew that day we were going to win,” says Dick Russell, author of Striper Wars (Island Press, 2005).

Only months earlier, near-extinction seemed a more-likely fate for the Atlantic coast’s premiere sport and commercial species. Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources in late 1983 had caved to commercial netting interests, further weakening already inadequate protection for the rockfish.

The rock’s population was in freefall, down about 90 percent since the early 1970s. Spawning in the Chesapeake, which produced 90 percent of all the coast’s stripers, was at an historic low.

Striper Wars tells how that bleak situation was turned into one of modern history’s great environmental comebacks, through the hard work of citizens, scientists, politicians and some courageous Maryland biologists who risked their necks to speak out.

The striper success – and the reasons it’s not permanent – hold lessons for managing all fish.

The book is also a tribute to a “magical” species, which millions of us have assumed we were hooking when perhaps just the opposite was going on.

I’ve known the author since 1971, when he traveled as a young journalist through my then-home of Asmara in the Ethiopian highlands. He was a Kansan and hardly knew stripers from salmon. So we never spoke about hooking/being hooked by my first rockfish back on the Chesapeake, where a sunset suffused sky and water equally with a seamless, pastel coloration and a flood tide gorged the salt marsh.

Everyone who’s caught a rock has a story of this silver and charcoal-striped creature, which can live for decades and grow to 100 pounds. It spends its entire life cycle in close contact with marshes, ocean beaches, river banks – all the places we humans find enchanting.

“Though men are soon wearied with other fish, yet they never are with [striped] basse,” said the New England Prospect in 1634.

It was a starry night off Martha’s Vineyard in the summer of 1973 when a striper set the hook in Russell. The bonds formed would, he says, “change my life.”

During the next decade, as the decline of the striper from sport and commercial overfishing became more apparent, Russell became a coastal activist. Supported by his family, he roved the East Coast for nearly three years, using his media skills to catalyze the fight to save his touchstone.

“Very few people played a more critical role in the recovery of the striped bass than Dick,” says Bill Goldsborough, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s fisheries scientist.

As Russell and others mobilized support, the major striper-fishing states fell into line: New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts – each a unique battle, chronicled in Striper Wars.

But Maryland, the main spawning grounds, remained key – and recalcitrant, with an entrenched commercial netting tradition and its powerful legislative allies.

One turning point came after Russell organized a national conference in Washington to highlight the lack of protection for the rockfish.

A few days later he found himself in a public shouting match with Lee Zeni, a top Maryland DNR official, when Russell used data supplied by Zeni’s biologists to give the lie to DNR’s official line that it was doing enough.

The book details how Zeni went on a witch-hunt to roust out dissenting biologists and triggered a successful grievance against DNR.

With mounting media and public calls for action, imminent federal legislation to protect the fish, and science showing the situation growing more dire, DNR secretary Torrey C. Brown went to Gov. Harry Hughes to recommend a moratorium.

“Well, if that’s what we’ve gotta do, go ahead and do it,” Hughes told Russell of his response to Brown.

The stripers’ comeback is history – and from Maine to the Carolinas we all enjoy fishing for them once again as a result.

Three lessons of the striper wars are clear: Success depended on federal oversight with teeth, well-funded research, and a strong monitoring program that proved spawning was deteriorating.

A fourth lesson – not yet learned – is why Striper Wars ends on a sobering note.

It’s becoming apparent that it’s not enough to manage fish species by species. We have to manage the ecosystem in which they thrive.

There are signs that today’s abundant stripers are becoming malnourished and prey to bacterial diseases as its favorite food, the oily little menhaden, declines in number. Menhaden management is just emerging from the dark ages. And serious pollution problems still plague the species’ waters.

Russell quotes a marine researcher: “People think nature gets broken, you fix it, and the story’s over. But it’s never over.”