Fighting to Stay Alive

Striper Wars: An American Fish Story. Dick Russell.
Island Press/Shearwater Books, Washington. DC, 2005.
288 pp. $26.95 (ISBN 1559636327, cloth).

Make way, Clive Cussler and Nevada Barr. In Striper Wars: An American Fish Story, environmental journalist Dick Russell writes a page-turner of a natural history tale every bit as suspenseful as the best murder mystery. In Russell’s story, though, the victims are fish. And we’re the perpetrators of the crime. For the past 20 years, Russell has written books and articles on crises facing the world’s oceans. A long-time sport fisherman, Russell is deeply involved in the battle to save the striped bass (Morone saxatilis).

In his latest book, Russell takes us into watery depths where striped bass have narrowly escaped death, not once, but several times. In the 1960s, striped bass in New York’s Hudson River began to die by the millions. Dogged marine biologists and fishers-turned-investigators braved threats of bodily harm to find out why. The culprit turned out to be the water intake system of the Indian Point nuclear power plant, a finding that prompted a near riot and led to the cancellation of a proposed pumped storage facility at nearby Storm King Mountain.

By the 1980s, striped bass were in such decline that the fish seemed destined to join the bald eagle on the endangered species list. But through the efforts of fishers like Russell to curtail striped bass landings, a population estimated at about 4.6 million in 1982 reached a historic peak in 2004 of some 56.7 million fish.

The striper’s remarkable, albeit temporary, comeback has become part of modern conservation lore. It’s hailed from coast to coast as an example of a fish with a management plan that – for a while – worked: Stop overfishing, and the fishery will rebound.

Striper Wars: An American Fish Story is a behind-the-scenes look at what Russell calls “a story about a magnificent fish and those of us who have fought against commercial interests and government bureaucrats to bring it back from the brink.” Although set mostly along the US East Coast (the “striper coast”), the book is also important reading for those concerned about threatened and endangered fish throughout the world’s oceans, including cod, salmon, and all too many others. Chapters like “How the Striped Bass Stopped a Highway and Eluded the Mob” “Showdown at Friendship Airport,” and “Revolt of the Biologists” introduce us to the villains and heroes of this piscine tale. Throughout, the striped bass themselves valiantly try to swim on, despite the political mongering taking place ashore.

From providing a mainstay in the diets of early Native Americans to inspiring the nation’s first conservation law, striped bass have been part of our historic Indeed, stripers play an important role in human culture in river cities and coastal towns all along the Atlantic seaboard. Today, “to several million sport fishermen like me,” writes Russell, “it is the premier game fish to pursue: intelligent, crafty, the ultimate challenge.”

Through Russell’s fish-eye lens, we follow a telltale striper from her wintering home in waters off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, to spawning grounds in the Chesapeake Bay. The fish journeys north along the coast to Long Island, past Narragansett Bay into Cape Cod Bay, and out to the Atlantic.

Russell longs for a time a half-century ago: “halcyon years, when a fisherman camped alongside the Cape Cod Canal could be awakened by the slapping of thousands of tails as an endless school of bass headed toward the open sea.” Those years – and those fish – are gone.

In Striper Wars, Russell presents a case study in successful environmental activism. Lessons learned from the conservation of striped bass might be applied, he believes, to “today’s critical questions of how to govern other fisheries, at a time when so many species are in grave jeopardy.” Russell cites a landmark article, “Ecosystem-Based Fishery Management,” published in the journal Science (16 July 2004), which states that fisheries management to date has often been ineffective. Ecosystem-based fishery management is a needed new direction, the 17 coauthors of the Science paper maintain: management priorities should he reversed, focusing first on the ecosystem rather than the target species.

Russell couldn’t agree more. The striped bass is a prime example, lie says, of a fish that’s literally dying for want of ecosystem-based fishery management. Striper chars shows us that we need to move beyond protecting a single fish to considering entire ecosystems in fishery management plans. And we need to get there soon.

Stripers are once again in trouble, their numbers declining. Once again, humans have resurfaced as the bass’s foes. This time the crime is over fishing of the bass’s primary food source – small, silvery fish called menhaden. “No longer is it simply a matter of overfishing [of stripers themselves], as it was in the past,” Russell writes. “Now the struggle involves the life cycle of the fish and the realm of its inhabitants.” A walk on almost any Chesapeake Bay beach proves Russell right: all along the shores are dead striped bass. Poor nutrition related to low numbers of menhaden in the bay is most likely to blame.

The relationship between striped bass and menhaden highlights the need for urgent changes in the way fisheries are managed, Russell argues. In a chapter titled “The Town that Menhaden Built,” the takes us to Reedville, Virginia, and inside the menhaden factory of the Omega Protein Corporation, which processes Chesapeake Bay menhaden into feed for chickens, among other uses.

Describing the effects of the Omega operation, Russell writes: “I could think of no better definition for the phrase ‘vicious circle.’ The intricate web that nature has woven into and around the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem – where what happens to menhaden, algae [which menhaden eat], striped bass and chickens is all interrelated – human practices can rapidly rend asunder.”

Obviously, the striped bass “still has something to teach us.” Russell would have us heed its lessons and learn to make the right choices, as he did when he decided one evening to drive to a small harbor and release the striper he’d caught earlier in the day for dinner.

( is a journalist
specializing in the marine sciences.