Striper Wars: An American Fish Story

STRIPED BASS have a way of attracting both attention and controversy. Popular with Atlantic coast sport and commercial fishermen, stripers have been catalysts for many landmark conservation and environmental regulations over the years. In Striper Wars: An America Fish Story, Dick Russell describes the fight that sport fishermen, marine biologists and other advocates have put up in the stripers’ defense when their population has been threatened. He writes with the authority of one of those defenders as he pulls together the historical, political and scientific threads related to striper population fluctuations in this entertaining tale.

Russell recounts how stripers were plentiful in the earliest days of European settlement of America’s East Coast, sustaining the Pilgrims at the Plymouth Colony through their first winters. Striped bass were subject to America’s first conservation law, when the Massachusetts Bay Colony ruled in 1639 that they were too valuable for settlers to use as fertilizer.

In the 1960s, Consolidated Edison was granted a license to build a power plant adjacent to a valuable striper spawning area in New York’s Hudson River. Local citizens took their objections to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals. The court established the right of citizens to sue a government agency to protect a natural resource, in this case, the striper spawning area. It withdrew permission for the license and required the federal government to conduct a complete environmental review. According to Russell, this helped lead to the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which requires U.S. federal agencies to present Environmental Impact Statements before projects are approved. All this thanks to striped bass!

Stripers were also instrumental in stopping a massive landfill and highway construction project in New York City in the 1980s. While opponents tried to halt construction of a six-lane highway on the west side of Manhattan on air quality grounds, ultimately it was the destruction of striper habitat among the piers that caused a judge in federal district court to block the landfill.

Striped bass population figures have fluctuated dramatically over time. Minimum length regulations set in the 1940s helped stripers rebound from heavy commercial fishing. Russell notes that commercial fishing equipment enhancements and increases in recreational fishing in the 1970s brought new pressures. Agricultural runoff damaged their habitat. By the early 1980s, the striper population had been decimated. After much debate, fisheries management regulations were put in place that allowed their numbers to rebound. Yet now reductions in the menhaden supply, a major food source, and infection by mycobacteriosis threaten striped bass in Chesapeake Bay, their primary spawning region.

In Striper Wars, Russell clearly captures the passion people have for conserving the fish they treasure. He tells of Bob Pond, who developed the popular Atom lure in Massachusetts and later used his profits to save the very fish he helped people catch. Pond started Stripers Unlimited in 1965, the first organization devoted to protecting striped bass. Russell describes Jim White, a Rhode Island postman who overcame his fear of public speaking to become an eloquent defender of stripers at contentious hearings on a Rhode Island striper-fishing moratorium in the 1980s. His congresswoman served on the House Fisheries Subcommittee, and White would time his mail deliveries so he could buttonhole her at her office.

A Hudson River camping trip gave Russell a chance to spend time with environmental activist and Waterkeeper Alliance president Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Kennedy has filed lawsuits against companies polluting the river. ‘Stripers are the flagship species for the Hudson,’ he told Russell. ‘Their life cycle is intertwined with the biological integrity of virtually every part of the river.’

Russell relates the contributions of several marine biologists to the ‘battle,’ and weaves facts and figures about fisheries management throughout the book. He describes the benefits of ecosystem management over simply regulating the size and number of stripers caught. With ecosystem management, there are opportunities to study complex interactions in the stripers’ habitat, and to factor in diverse knowledge, including that based on the experience of commercial fishermen. Russell believes it is critically important to understand the striped bass life cycle and protect the ecosystems they inhabit as they face increasing environmental stresses and reduced food supplies. Dick Russell writes so enthusiastically about the people who fight to protect stripers because he is one of them. He organized a citizens’ conference in Washington, D.C., on the future of striped bass back in 1983, testified before Congress, and wrote about the challenges to the stripers’ survival in regional and national magazines. Russell is the author of three other books, including Eye of the Whale. Anthony Benton Gude, who has also been an advocate for striped bass, drew attractive illustrations for Striper Wars.

©2006 The Gulf of Maine Times