Striped bass in trouble again: What is to be done

The comeback of the Atlantic striped bass has been called the foremost example of a fisheries management success story, proving that if strong enough regulations are put in place, even a fish population in the worst straits can make a dramatic turn-around. As I documented in my book, Striper Wars: An American Fish Story, this was only achieved because of the pressure applied on public officials by fishermen all along the coast. I also warned, however, that this could be all for naught if attention was not paid – and quickly – to a chronic bacterial infection among the Chesapeake Bay’s striper population, a disease that seems to be linked to their not getting enough to eat. The menhaden, their food of choice, is being overfished by a single corporation, Omega Protein, that grinds the little fish up into fish-meal and processes them into fish-oil.

Since my book was published in 2005, the situation has not gotten any better. In fact, all indications this year are that it’s a whole lot worse. The annual index showing how well striped bass have spawned in the Chesapeake is the lowest since 1990, when they were only beginning to emerge from their near-total collapse. At the same time, marine biologists at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science have released a report stating that the mycobacterial infection is a “stress disease” now detected in more than 60 percent of the bay’s stripers and one that ultimately proves fatal. Among their findings, the scientists noted that older females are more likely than males to die from the disease. No surprise, then, that spawning success is way down.

Fishermen in many different locations along the Eastern seaboard are reporting their worst seasons since the dire days of the early 1980s. There is a lack of forage for stripers in New England waters too, where “factory-sized” midwater trawlers are encircling huge schools of herring with nets as big as a football field. Never has the need for an ecosystem-based approach to management been more apparent. Yet the big commercial interests continue to have inordinate influence over the supposed regulators.

In the Chesapeake region, a group of scientists came out in early December to flatly state that the 25-year, $6-billion effort to clean up the bay has been a dismal failure and needs to be completely revamped. A few days later, the federal EPA asked for an exemption to exclude poultry farms from the environmental reporting required of other industries – even though they release pollutants into the air from millions of tons of manure left by their flocks (as much as one-third of the nitrogen fouling the bay waters comes from the air). This is yet another example of the Bush administration’s blatant gutting of environmental laws in its final days.

So what is to be done? In the 1980s, faced with a pollution problem that everyone knew could not be solved overnight, there was only one thing to do: stop the fishing pressure. Moratoriums and no-sale laws went into effect all across the coast. As the striped bass population heads for what may be a second great crash, it’s time to move in that direction again. Already there is no commercial fishing for stripers allowed in Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia and South Carolina, nor in federal waters beyond the three-mile state limit. A bill will soon be pending in the Massachusetts Legislature to follow suit and make striped bass a no-sale gamefish.

I am not someone who enjoys advocating that commercial fishermen be put out of the striped bass business, or denying supermarkets and restauranteurs the right to sell the fish. I’ve resisted calling for this extreme a measure for a long time. But I’m afraid its time has come, coupled with stronger limitations on the millions of recreational anglers who are taking far too many of the big spawning females – and with curtailing the slaughter of tons of baitfish, menhaden and herring. The striped bass has been called the aquatic equivalent of the American bald eagle. We can’t let this most majestic of our fish species once again find itself on the brink of disappearing.