Testimony of Dick Russell

Author, Striper Wars

H796, An Act relative to the conservation of Atlantic striped bass

Massachusetts Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources & Agriculture
January 14, 2010

I thank you for allowing me to testify today on what I believe is an urgent conservation measure, vital to preserving for our children and grand-children the most magnificent fish that swims our near-shore waters. I am an environmental journalist and the author of six books, including one called Striper Wars, about the fish that is the subject of this hearing. And today I hope to offer some historical perspective, along with the reasons why H796 needs to be passed during the current legislative session.

Striped bass have been called the aquatic equivalent of the American bald eagle. Without Native Americans having taught the Pilgrims about how to take striped bass, they would not have survived their first difficult winters in the Plymouth Colony. Protection of striped bass was the reason for America’s very first conservation law, in 1639, when the Massachusetts Bay Colony general court ruled they were too valuable to be ground up and used for fertilizer. The first fishery management measures, in 1776, were also drawn up on the striper’s behalf.

I have been fishing recreationally for striped bass off Martha’s Vineyard for almost four decades now. In the early 1980s, I became deeply involved in what became a coastwide campaign to try to save them from the Endangered Species List, organizing petition drives and a national conference. At the time, federal scientists trying to pinpoint a cause for why striped bass were disappearing from our waters cited pollution in the Chesapeake Bay spawning grounds as one reason. The other factor was clearly overfishing, and only this could be addressed immediately. There was a management plan in place, but it obviously didn’t go far enough. There were fewer and fewer striped bass around. That was why a grassroots effort of concerned fishermen was needed, and eventually we saw some incredible results. After Maryland declared a five-year moratorium on striper fishing and other states followed with similarly strong measures, the fish made an amazing comeback. In 1995, Scientific American magazine wrote: “The resurgence of striped bass along the eastern coast of the U.S. is probably the best example in the world of a species that was allowed to recoup through tough management and an intelligent rebuilding plan.”

I wish I could say that was the start of a success story we are still witnessing today. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. I’m afraid we are on the verge of seeing another population crash, as serious as the one that almost wiped out the striped bass fishery two decades ago. For the past several years, landings have been down all along the coast. A graph compiled by the Coastal Conservation Association shows that the number of striped bass encountered by recreational fishermen has decreased by more than 50 percent since 2006. Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s winter tagging cruise, conducted in the Atlantic Ocean off North Carolina for many years, came across the fewest striped bass ever. Every year since the mid-fifties, fishery scientists have sampled the water in a number of places in the Chesapeake Bay to see how many fish were spawned that spring. It’s called the striped bass young-of-the-year index, and there has been a steady decline over the past decade. 2007 saw the lowest number of juveniles since 1990, when the population was just emerging from near-total collapse.

So what is going on? Part of it, we know, has to do with what’s happening in the Chesapeake, where at least 75 percent of the migrating striped bass originate. In 2008, scientists from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science published a study showing that a chronic disease called mycobacteriosis is now at epidemic proportions. It’s been detected in sixty percent of the Chesapeake’s striped bass – and it eventually kills them. The disease began showing up a decade ago, sometimes in the form of skin lesions and often eating away at the fish from within. For humans handling infected fish with an open wound, scientists advise wearing gloves to avoid “fish handler’s disease” that can lead to arthritis-like joint problems. Mycobacteriosis has now spread to the Delaware Bay system, and has been seen in striped bass all along the coast, including here in Massachusetts.

The latest scientific study calls it a “stress disease.” Many of the diseased fish are also emaciated. So what seems to be happening is that the striped bass aren’t getting enough to eat. The Chesapeake Bay Ecological Foundation recently determined that malnutrition observed in more than 5,000 stripers is a consequence of what’s called “ecological depletion.” Menhaden, a small bony fish that swims in huge schools, is the striped bass’ primary food of choice. But its numbers are way down in the Chesapeake Bay. A single company, Omega Protein out of Reedville, Virginia is netting millions of menhaden annually to be ground up into fish meal and fish oil. A cap on the harvest that was first put in place in 2006 has not proved effective, because menhaden landings since then have averaged 30 percent below the cap. Things have gotten desperate enough for striped bass, bluefish, and other larger predators in the Bay that federal legislation for a complete moratorium on taking menhaden in Chesapeake waters has been introduced.

That probably needs to happen. So does what scientists call “ecosystem management,” taking into account not only pollution and climate change but that big fish need to eat smaller fish to survive. We must do that in Massachusetts, too, where the river herring are being eliminated by the big trawling ships. But when it comes to striped bass, we need to act, and soon, to stave off another crisis. It’s all too similar to the situation in the 1980s, when the only immediate thing to do was to cut back on the fishing pressure.

You will hear from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission that the resource is not overfished and overfishing is not occurring. Yet the allowable catch levels and quotas are still based on a theoretical abundance of fish from the Nineties – and that abundance no longer exists. At the same time, illegal black market fishing is rampant. In February 2009, five watermen in the Chesapeake Bay region pleaded guilty to poaching more than $2 million of striped bass – something like 600,000 fish – and that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Until recently, I resisted supporting a ban on commercial sale of wild striped bass in our state. But I have come to the conclusion that this is necessary, for the fish’s sake. And there is a strong precedent for it. Already the majority of coastal states through which the bass migrate have made striped bass a gamefish, including Maine, Connecticut, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Washington, DC and South Carolina. New York allows no commercial sale because of high levels of PCB’s in the fish’s flesh. Many of these measures, I might add, were done by state legislatures.

By far the biggest commercial harvest of striped bass along the coast occurs off Massachusetts, where half the fish’s population spend their summers. In 2009, Massachusetts commercial striped bass fishermen landed 1,160,453 pounds of fish. But this is not a significant portion of yearly income for any commercial fisherman. Only a very small number of commercial striped bass permit holders rely on sale of the fish to help support their families. The majority of these license holders sell stripers to help support their hobby.

I am in favor of a dedicated fund to buy back commercial striped bass permits on an amortized basis. And there is no reason that should not come from a saltwater license fee on recreational fishermen. We need to do our share, and the measures outlined in this bill – one fish a day instead of two, and only at a fixed minimum or maximum size limit in order to protect the most spawning female fish – would achieve that.

Some people say, what will restaurants and supermarkets do that depend on striped bass to help with income in the summertime? The fact is that farm-raised striped bass already comprise more than 60 percent of the market. The taste, and the price, is comparable to that of wild-caught fish. Fish raised in ponds or other enclosed systems are not tainted with mercury, PCBs and other contaminants found at levels high enough in ocean stripers to warrant health advisories against consuming them in many states. The Environmental Defense Fund recommends that people eat only farm-raised stripers, and this legislation would require any that are sold to bear a tag from the grower or distributor.

A century ago, market hunting drove many species of game birds and animals almost to extinction until the practice was outlawed. In recent years, we have seen red drum become a recreational-only species in Florida, and sea trout and redfish in Texas, because there weren’t enough fish to also support a commercial industry. Given all the problems striped bass are facing today, I don’t feel there is any choice but to follow such precedents. We are seeing all the same warning signs that appeared during the near-catastrophic decline of the 1980s. They are signs that weren’t reacted to, until it was almost too late. This time, the coming crash would be worse than before, because there are more fishermen with much more deadly fishing techniques. We cannot afford to wait until it takes intervention from the U.S. Congress and a moratorium to save and then restore the fishery. Massachusetts was a leader in striped bass conservation once. We need to be so again. Thank you.