Review: Striper Wars

The environment is one of those issues that can put to sleep the most troubled insomniac. Full of statistics, scientific jargon, and the kind of flora and fauna one would only expect to find at about 2 a.m. on the Discovery Channel, it’s hard for us to get excited about it. We know that we live in the environment, that it provides us with air to breathe, water to drink, and food. We also know that when the environment turns nasty – as it is doing these days in South Florida and the Gulf of Mexico with an unprecedented hurricane season – it can cost us billions of dollars and hundreds if not thousands of lives.

Still, we find it hard to get as consumed over environmental issues as we do about, say, Valerie Plame or the Bolton nomination. The threat to us from global warming is not something immediately felt. The danger to the world seems to take place gradually, over many years.

Or it did.

Now we know that strange things are happening to the world and the culprit seems to be the one enemy the Bush administration does not wish to fight. Pollution has caused an incredible amount of damage, which is now being felt more rapidly than even the scientists have predicted. The bizarre hurricane season is one of these results; the plague of sick and dying fish and other aquatic life-forms is another. But how can anyone make us stand up and take notice? Even more importantly, what can we do about it?

Robert F. Kennedy Jr has tackled that subject head on in his deeply moving and compelling Crimes Against Nature. He has shown what has happened to the environment, especially in the last few years under a hostile presidential administration. The facts detailed in his book make for sober reading, especially concerning the wholesale rejection by the Bush White House of all the advances made under the Clinton administration. He shows beyond any reasonable doubt that the Bush administration dropped charges against major polluters – charges brought against them under Clinton – and actually installed some of these indicted individuals as environmental watchdogs, an act of obscenity that is only possible when committed by the coldly cynical. The very name of Kennedy, however, will guarantee that the book will be read and embraced by one element of our population while being studiously ignored by another.

It is perhaps no mere coincidence that the next great work about the environment and what can be done by ordinary citizens to stop the carnage would be written by an author with close ties to the Kennedy mystique.

In 1992, former TV Guide editor Dick Russell published one of the best books about the President Kennedy assassination, The Man Who Knew Too Much. It was the story of Richard Case Nagell, a man with shadowy intelligence connections going back decades who had himself arrested in September 1963 so he would not be involved in the assassination itself, after warning the CIA and the FBI about the plot surrounding the President. The book is massive, more than 500 pages-long, and once begun is hard to put down. It has been reprinted recently, by Carroll & Graf, and is a must-have for conspiracy aficionados.

Russell then turned his attention towards the environment. Striper Wars: An American Fish Story is his latest contribution. We may remember the lines from the Billy Joel song about the New England fishing industry, The Downeaster “Alexa”, off his Storm Front album:

“Since they told me I can’t sell no stripers
And there’s no luck in swordfishing here”

If the unfortunate skipper of the Alexa couldn’t sell any stripers, it was due to guys like Dick Russell who, in the 1970s, fell in love with the fish and with catching them all up and down the Atlantic coast. Russell de-objectifies the striped bass in such a way that we can begin to understand why it elicits such intense emotion in all who fish for bass. Even more importantly, Russell – in digging deep into the history of the striped bass, a fish “as American as the bald eagle” – shows us that the first Pilgrims on Plymouth Rock were taught how to go after the stripers by the Native Americans and how catching the luxuriously sweet and meaty bass probably contributed to the survival of the Pilgrims their first few winters in America. In fact, as Russell points out, the very first conservation law passed in the Colonies was designed to protect the striper from being over-fished, its flesh and bones having been used as a popular fertilizer by the colonists.

The Striper Wars began in the 1970s over alarm at the sudden decline of the fish from Maryland to Massachusetts. Russell was appalled at the dwindling supply, and cast about looking for ways to call a halt to the vast over-fishing of the striper’s waters by commercial fishing concerns. His attempts were not met with unadulterated warmth by state legislatures. In fact, he faced an uphill battle for years. Striper Wars is the story of that battle, told in a moving and at times self-effacing way. Russell is careful to give credit where it is due … and blame where it hurts most:

Leave it to the old Kennedy assassination researcher to come up with a good one. As we read about the decimation of the striper’s principal food supply – a small, boney fish called the menhaden – by commercial fishing operations intent on exploiting it for use in Omega-3 fish oil, we find ourselves back at “the Bay of Pigs thing”, as Nixon put it. For who is America’s largest purveyor of Omega-3 fish oil and the major destroyer of the menhaden supply but … Zapata Oil!

Oh, yes, dear reader. The same Zapata Oil that was run by George H.W. Bush until he sold it in the mid-1960s, believed to have been a CIA front for the Bay of Pigs invasion. We will never know all the details because, as Russell reminds us, potentially revealing financial documents were “accidentally” destroyed at the SEC when Bush became vice-president under Reagan. The company is now known as Omega Protein, and it is owned by the same man who bought the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Manchester United: Malcolm Glazer.

So what does all this tell us? Nothing we don’t already know: big money and Washington politics, hand-in-hand, protecting corporate profits and destroying the environment in easy stages. What Russell’s book does reveal, however, is how a handful of determined people were able to force the issue and save the striped bass from extinction. They were successful, Russell and his colleagues, but the fight is far from over. The environment is constantly in flux and needs careful husbanding by its people, the prime benefactors: ordinary people with a passion for the beauty and majesty of nature, committed to acting on behalf of a client that cannot speak in its own defense.

Those of you who consider all environmentalists to be nothing but tree-huggers and starry-eyed New Agers should well consider one incontrovertible fact: maybe the environment cannot plead its case in the media or the courts, but it can exact a terrible vengeance. Predictions of the effects of global warming have recently been moved up. We will start seeing more serious results not in our children’s lifetime but in our own. Striper Wars is a case study on how to take charge of the situation now, before it gets totally out of hand. That old saw, “think globally, act locally”, never sounded so insistent as it does now.