Battling for Bass

Striped bass are so ubiquitous these days, so readily available from shore or boat, that many anglers probably can’t imagine an ocean without them. Yet that was just the case a little more than 20 years ago, when the East Coast population of stripers was so depleted that many experts feared the species would become extinct.

In Striper Wars (Island Press, $26.95,, veteran environmental writer and marine conservationist Dick Russell details the arduous fight to protect what he considers the aquatic equivalent of the bald eagle. Russell, who lives in Boston and on Martha’s Vineyard, joined the battle when the striper population crashed in the late 1970s and early ’80s. He traveled extensively throughout the striper’s range, writing on the species’ plight and lobbying hard for its protection. Along the way he met and joined forces with an eclectic mix of people. The book’s list of interesting heroes includes lure-maker Bob Pond, Rhode Island mailman-turned-fishing guide Jim White, Maryland biologist Jim Uphoff, Sports Illustrated writer Robert Boyle, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., founder of the Riverkeeper organization.

Much of Striper Wars looks back at the struggle to reduce the fishing pressure on stripers—no easy task considering the species’ extensive migratory range (getting the East Coast states to agree on equitable regulations took a Herculean effort) and the many different groups who depend on stripers for their livelihood and pleasure. Through personal anecdotes and reminiscences, Russell provides a revealing look at the messy inner workings of fisheries management, where doing what’s right for the fish sometimes takes a back seat to politics and money. Russell paints a sometimes nightmarish picture of a system where backroom deal making nullifies the efforts of hard-working biologists. Facts get ignored, and good people find themselves shuffled into positions where their protests and findings won’t get heard.

Of course, we know how it all turned out: The fish won, and now the population of East Coast striped bass is fully recovered and thriving—or is it? As Russell points out, storm clouds are gathering over the fishery again. New problems have emerged, such as despoilment of the fish’s primary spawning and nursery grounds in the Chesapeake Bay, where overnutrification and oxygen depletion are affecting the fish’s ability to survive in this critical estuary. The specters of disease and malnutrition also loom, as the striper’s primary food sources become depleted through overfishing. Other concerns include the growing number of recreational fishermen, catch-and-release mortality and the number of large, spawning-age stripers being removed from the population. There’s also the problem of bycatch in the commercial trawler and gillnet fisheries for other species. These threats to stripers are myriad and not easily cured, but, as Russell points out, the species has many champions.