Comeback story might not have happy ending after all

Stripers face potential crisis

Is the marine comeback species of the late 20th century getting in trouble again?

Two authors who have written extensively about striped bass sounded an alarm during separate appearances at recent fishing shows in Massachusetts, Marlborough’s Fly Fishing show and the Eastern Fishing and Outdoor Exposition in Worcester.

Dick Russell speculates about a connection between what he describes as over-harvesting of menhaden and a “microbacterial infection” that acts on stripers the same way chronic wasting disease affects deer herds.

He is a magazine writer turned conservationist who recently authored StriperWars, an account of the work of activists along the coasts of the original 13 colonies to restore a depleted species.

Inshore Fly Fishing author Lou Tabory spoke bluntly in Worcester.

“I think in the last five years, the striped bass population has definitely dropped off,” he said. “I’m noticing it in my fishing. I think fly fishermen notice it first. Plug fisherman started to notice it, and then the other anglers as well. The fly fishing, you need a lot of fish to make it reasonable. I’m just not seeing the fish that I saw five years ago. If I was just going by myself, by what I’m doing, okay, maybe I’m not at the right spot at the right time. But I’m talking to a lot of people who are not happy with the situation.”

Tabory thinks over-fishing is the problem, by both recreational and commercial fishermen. He includes what he called the six-pack guides, who take half a dozen anglers out twice a day. Multiply two keepers per day per rod times thousands of guides, and “that’s a lot of fish.”

I credit Tabory for including advice on catch-and-release techniques in his seminar. He said he always fishes with pinched-barb hooks, rarely losing a fish as long as he keeps the line tight. Barbless or pinched-barb hooks are much easier to remove, putting less stress on the fish.

Russell told his Marlborough crowd he began fishing for striped on Martha’s Vineyard in 1973. He described starting with bluefish and working his way to saltwater bass.

By the early 1980s, “my friends and I realized that something was wrong. There weren’t any bass around anymore. You couldn’t catch them. We didn’t know what was going on.”

It was a story familiar to anyone who has read about the extinction or extirpation (wiping out a species locally) of a species. Ruin the habitat and kill too many, and we can do a number on wild creatures.

In this case it was over-fishing combined with water pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

For pragmatic reasons, Russell and his allies focused on over-fishing. “Fighting pollution was going to take a hell of a long time,” he recalled.

The campaign started in Massachusetts, where conservationists pushed for a 24-inch minimum length limit.

A movement’s success sometimes turns on the unintended consequences of a political maneuver. As Russell tells the story, conservationists were struggling to get a 24-inch limit approved by a commission stacked with commercial fishing interests. To the shock of everyone, commissioners acted out of spite in imposing a total moratorium on taking stripers.

“Ironically, it turned out to be the right thing to do for all the wrong reasons,” he said.

New York fell into place with a 24-inch limit despite pressure from a large fish market that wanted to keep selling small stripers.

The big break came in September, 1984, when Maryland declared a five-year moratorium on bass.

“I knew in that instant that that was going to do it. That saved the fish,” Russell continued. “The fish made an amazing comeback.”He described a 28-fold increase in the bass population.

He’s not sure what is causing current problems in the Chesapeake. Many bay stripers are remaining skinny on a diet of crabs, shrimp and lobsters.

They should be dining on menhaden, which are high in fat and protein. Russell compared the pogies to a chocolate as a rich food for stripers.

He was highly critical of a commercial fleet that harvests menhaden for processing into poultry feed, food for fishing raised in aquaculture, and the fish oil concentrate used as a dietary supplement – my health care provider has me swallowing three capsules per day.

I checked the Web site of Omega Protein, which Russell described as a monopoly in the commercial menhaden fishery. The company is part of the Atlantic Menhaden Coalition, and that organization’s site is linked to Omega’s. The coalition vehemently denies over-fishing, countering that “big game anglers ultimately seek the devastation of traditional fishery communities along the Atlantic coast, and the elimination of hardworking, often third- and fourth-generation, fishing families.”

The latest controversy provides interesting food for thought. Striped bass has served both recreational and commercial fishermen well over the years, especially since the comeback after the crash. Every angler who cares about the future should keep a close eye on this fishery.

(John Corrigan invites comments and ideas faxed to 753-8227; or e-mailed to