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About the Author
Dick Russell, a longtime environmental journalist, is the author of The Man Who Knew Too Much (Carroll & Graf, 2003), Black Genius: And the American Experience (Carroll & Graf, 1999), and Eye of the Whale (Island Press, 2004). He divides his time between Los Angeles and Boston.
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An American Fish Story
By Dick Russell
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 2005 Dick Russell
All rights reserved.
A Tale of Two Fishes
Captain John Smith, the first white man to explore and map the Chesapeake Bay, felt that "Heaven and earth have never agreed better to frame a place for man's habitation." The "fruitful and delightsome land" Smith encountered bore great woods of oak and walnut that sheltered abundant deer and wild pig. Corn was plentiful, as was fruit, including grapes, mulberries, and strawberries. And the rich waters—which would eventually produce more seafood per acre than any others on earth—were teeming with striped bass. "I myself at the turning of the tyde have seen such multitudes," Smith wrote of them in 1614, "that it seemed to me that one mighte go over their backs drisho'd [dry-shoed]."
For centuries before Smith, striped bass had been caught and dried in prodigious numbers by Native American tribes along the Atlantic coast. According to Roger Williams, the Narragansett Indians called the bass missuckeke-kequock, which meant "much fish" or "great fish." A Dutch commercial agent named Isaack De Rasieres wrote in 1623 of the Hudson River tribes: "It seems the fish makes the Indians lascivious, for it is often observed that those who have caught any when they have gone fishing have given them, on their return, to their women, who look for them anxiously."
The first Thanksgiving might as easily have served striped bass as turkey. Local Algonquins alerted the Pilgrim newcomers to the qualities of the fish, and the colonists noted its resemblance to the sea bass of the British Isles, except that the North American variety bore a series of seven to eight close-set charcoal stripes that ran laterally along the upper sides. These were beautiful creatures indeed, the stripes and scales reflecting like brass in the autumn waters. The fish's back, or dorsal, surface came in colors ranging from steel blue to a dark olive-green, paling on the sides to a white belly. The lean, white flesh had a delicate, succulent flavor—seeming to combine the sweetness of the fresh water where it spawned, the saltiness of the ocean, and the meatiness born of muscling its way down the Eastern coastline. The fish were robust, sometimes as thick around as your waist, and plentiful. In the summer of 1623, the Plymouth settlers used their last, leaky little boat and a single net to catch enough striped bass to provide them sustenance well into the autumn. As William Wood noted in the New England Prospect (1634): "Though men are soon wearied with other fish, yet they never are with basse."
Rules were early laid down around the fish. Colonial bond servants, for example, could not be fed more than two meals a week of striped bass. The promulgation of America's first fishing regulation, by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1639, stated: "And it is forbidden to all men ... to imploy any codd or basse fish for manuring of ground." Another distinction was an act passed by the Plymouth Colony in 1670 that required that all income accrued annually from the fisheries at Cape Cod for striped bass, mackerel, or herring be set aside for a free school. As a result, the first public school in the New World was made possible in part through moneys derived from the sale of striped bass.
George Washington, upon arriving at Mount Vernon in 1759, would write a letter about the Potomac River being "well-stocked with various kinds of fish," including bass "in great abundance" in the spring. Washington employed a small net designed to be hauled ashore by hand and ordered his overseer to admit "the honest poor" to partake of fishing privileges at one of his shores. In 1776, the legislatures of New York and Massachusetts took time out from raising revolutionary armies for General Washington to enact one of our first fisheries management efforts: laws prohibiting wintertime commercial sale of striped bass.
The fish were, in fact, then abundant in nearly every major river that fed into the Atlantic Ocean, from Canada's St. Lawrence River all the way to Florida. When newcomers settled in North Carolina, part of its attraction was the bountiful anadromous fishes—especially striped bass—that thrived in the Roanoke River and other tributaries of Albemarle Sound. From his first years as a congressman, Daniel Webster is reported to have pursued striped bass along the Potomac, "eminent among the celebrated fishermen of the day," according to Spencer Baird, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and later America's first fish commissioner as well as a devotee of bass fishing.
Shortly after the Civil War, recreational fishing for striped bass began in earnest, initially as a pastime for wealthy sportsmen. They founded clubs to fish for stripers with long cane rods adapted from European salmon rods, often from wooden piers specially built out into the surf. As one historian described the world of Massachusetts's Cuttyhunk Striper Club, "robber barons had their hooks baited with lobster tails and called in their stock-market trades to the mainland via carrier pigeon." (One technique, known as "walking the lobster," found fishermen baiting their hooks with baby crustaceans, which would move slowly but tantalizingly along the bottom until a striper located them.)
* * *
As the nineteenth century drew toward a close, an intensified wave of concern about overfishing and habitat surfaced on the striper's behalf—a wave that would wax and wane for the next hundred years. By 1870, Robert B. Roosevelt, a renowned fisherman-conservationist who served as a role model for his nephew Theodore Roosevelt, was warning that "the insatiable maw of the New York market" was cutting drastically into the Northeast's striper population. In addition, dams built to power the mills of the Industrial Revolution were preventing the customary upriver spawning migrations of striped bass in New England.
Yet heavy fishing continued to be rampant along the Eastern seaboard. One newspaper account from May 1896 reported that 38,000 pounds of striped bass had been landed in a single seine haul near Norfolk, Virginia. Some of these fish weighed upward of a hundred pounds, while others were as small as six inches. The market became so glutted that the fish were selling for a mere penny a pound.
By the early 1900s, when Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft came to cast for stripers from the "bass stands" of Cuttyhunk, the fish's population had been reduced to extremely low levels. The Cuttyhunk club would close its doors by 1910, and for most of the next thirty years, striped bass were few and far between.
Then gradually came a shift in the fish's fortunes. Because the streams in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina were comparatively slow and meandering, they had not been harnessed for power. In the major Chesapeake tributaries—as well as in the Hudson River—the bass typically spawned below the first dams. The Chesapeake fish, emanating from so many diverse and productive tributaries across a wide area, would come to comprise up to 90 percent of the Atlantic coastal stock.
In 1919, the federal government purchased the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. The canal had been little more than a ditch since being opened ninety years before to connect the Chesapeake Bay eastward to the Delaware River. Now it was decided to make the waterway larger. For striped bass at the northern end of the Chesapeake system this meant they could take a much shorter route to the Atlantic, through the canal and down into Delaware Bay. The expansion also allowed greater water flow into the bass's primary spawning habitat in the Chesapeake. Some have speculated that, at the nadir of the fish's population in 1934, this helped result in a "baby boom."
A "great awakening of public interest in maintaining the supply of this fish at a high level of abundance coincides with one of the most remarkable returns to high levels of yield that the striped bass fishery has ever experienced," William C. Neville of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told the first meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) in 1942. He was referring to formation of a remarkable fifteen-state compact "to coordinate the conservation of management of near-shore fishery resources," inspired by concern over the striper's future viability.
Led by Massachusetts, most of the coastal states began implementing a sixteen-inch minimum size limit to allow more of the small fish to reach spawning age. In 1947, Massachusetts also outlawed any netting of striped bass within its three-mile territorial boundary. While regulations remained inconsistent along the bass's migratory route, soon the fish were flourishing as never before and continued to do so for several decades. The 1960s were the halcyon years, a time 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.
But fishing was again beginning to take a devastating toll on the species. New power boats equipped with radar, short-wave radios, powerful engines, and sonar devices for detecting and locating fish schools—often referred to as "killing machines"—were partly responsible. In 1971, commercial draggers working offshore of Virginia had discovered a vast horde of big striped bass wintering over, for example, and netted them all. And on a single day in January 1972, two crews of haul seiners at Cape Hatteras pooled their nets and brought in more than 100,000 pounds of stripers, most of them roe-laden females weighing between twenty and fifty pounds. Gillnetting of fish entering the Chesapeake's tributaries to spawn also took a heavy toll on large females. Recreational angling increased exponentially in the 1970s as well, targeting smaller "panfish."
Suddenly the flood-tide of bass began to recede. Nobody knew whether the decline was a result of overfishing, or increased pollution within the Chesapeake Bay spawning grounds, or a combination of both. But within less than a decade, the population had declined to such an extent that scientists were questioning whether the fish could survive at all as a coastal resource. An Emergency Striped Bass Study was mandated by Congress. Maryland scientists observed incredibly low numbers of eggs, larvae, and adult spawners in the Potomac River and upper Chesapeake Bay. By 1981, the young-of-the-year survey of surviving newborn bass in the Chesapeake had hit an all-time low: an average of 1.2 juvenile fish taken per seine haul.
* * *
All I knew at the time was that catching, or even seeing, a striped bass had become a rare occurrence. For three years in the late 1970s, I'd worked as a feature writer in the Hollywood bureau of TV Guide. By the time I returned to the East Coast, the plentiful summer striper fishing I'd known so briefly and beautifully was over.
Still, I couldn't stop trying. On a crisp late summer day in 1981, I remember marveling at the majestic red clay cliffs along Gay Head as my friend cut the engine and let our boat drift toward shore on the incoming tide. The sea was dark and churning after a September storm, the way striped bass liked it best. Suddenly I glimpsed the outline of a fish on the crest of a wave. The torpedo-like shape was unmistakable. Then came a second wave, a second fish. They were huge, at least 30 pounds each—swinging their strong, broad tails, their gills protected by a tough and bony plate. Now dozens appeared, their iridescent colors outlined against the light green wave tops. For an instant a pair of bass came tail to tail, forming a wondrous mirror image inside a single wave.
Into this rainbow of sun and sea and bass, we could not even cast. Especially given how few bass we had been seeing lately, it was a spectacle too precious to disturb. Finally we journeyed on along the island's coast. After a spin through the riptides offshore to pick up a few bluefish, we returned for one last look. But in the same spot below the cliffs, there was now an intruder: another fishing boat had anchored in the path of our drift.
Rapidly and with ruthless abandon, several fishermen were hauling in bass after bass, clubbing each fish as it came over the side and tossing it into a box. They were "chunker fishing," tossing hunks of menhaden overboard and then casting out hooks fitted with more of the irresistible bait. This school of bass that had danced for us in the twilight was being wiped out. It was too painful to speak as our boat returned to Menemsha Harbor that evening.
A few days later, at a dinner party hosted by a small group of my friends, some of the island's finest fishermen were on hand. These weren't just weekend anglers; among the recreational fishing community, over the years they had established a reputation for being able to find, and successfully catch, striped bass anywhere, anytime. Over several glasses of wine and a wonderful meal, we had a long discussion about what we had all been observing—and had been the subject of much dockside talk over the summer. As we compared notes, it was clear this went well beyond fishermen's disgruntled palaver about "the one that got away." They confirmed that seeing fewer and fewer stripers was a common experience.
"Spider" Andresen, an associate publisher at Salt Water Sportsman magazine, paused at the kitchen door on his way out. "So long," he said. "I don't know how we can deal with this now. It's impossible to regulate a migratory species, just can't be done. Eventually, our best hope is that they'll be fished almost to extinction. Striped bass will become an endangered species. And then the regulations will come."
For a long time thereafter, his words resounded. But for my friends and me, a line had already been crossed. We could no longer passively watch the species decline. There was nothing to do but take a stand.
Starting in 1982 in my home state of Massachusetts, that is precisely what we did. We even brought our children into the streets to help collect signatures on petitions calling for stronger regulations to protect the striped bass. Years later, hearteningly, one of these young activists, Lincoln Lyman, would write me that this experience had imbued him with the belief that "if you want the world to change, you had better roll up your sleeves and get to work."
Certainly my world changed. Journalism became a tool that I put to use as an activist. I began speaking out on radio and TV. Eventually I ended up testifying before Congress, organizing a national conference, and forming a new organization to bring attention to the plight of the striped bass. For several years, my life was dominated by this effort as I traveled up and down the Eastern seaboard, finding allies in each state where the striper had touched the shoreline and the hearts of people. They, too, knew that this majestic fish was worth fighting to save.
You will meet many of them in these pages—from a Massachusetts lure maker to a Rhode Island postman to a jeweler from Maryland. Had the striped bass not brought us together, from so many walks of life, we would never have known what kindred spirits we were or what we could do together. I've been to see them all again while working on this book, some for the first time in years—to probe their memories about what happened then, and to talk about what they are seeing now, as threats to the striped bass mount once again.
* * *
On a gray late October day in 2003, rain clouds were on the horizon. It was about two in the afternoon as the four of us loaded our fishing rods and tackle boxes onto Diamond Jim, Jim Price's sleek twenty-eight-foot Bertram. From the marina in Oxford, a watermen's enclave on Maryland's Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, it was maybe a twenty-minute run to reach the mouth of the Choptank River.
Price climbed a ladder to the flying bridge, sat down at the wheel, and started his new, 650-horsepower twin engines. In the stern stood Joe Boone, readying a bucktail jig for his spinning rod. He had to be approaching seventy, but retained the same lanky frame, ruddy complexion, and reddish hair that I remembered from years earlier. A fisheries scientist, Boone had supervised Maryland's annual young-of-the-year fishing surveys for thirty years. Now retired to a farm about a two-hour drive from here, Boone still made a half-dozen trips every summer to go fishing with Price. Standing next to Boone was Jim Uphoff, his longtime colleague on the surveys, still employed as a marine biologist by Maryland's Department of Natural Resources.
I'd flown in from Boston for this reunion. Twenty years earlier, Boone and Uphoff had put their scientific careers on the line for the sake of the striped bass. Price had abandoned his charter-boat business to lobby for the bass's designation as a threatened species in Maryland and started a nonprofit organization known today as the Chesapeake Bay Ecological Foundation.
Excerpted from Striper Wars by Dick Russell. Copyright © 2005 Dick Russell. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Prologue - Origins of a Fish Story,
Chapter One - A Tale of Two Fishes,
Chapter Two - Storm over the Hudson,
Chapter Three - The Conscience of a Lure Maker,
Chapter Four - A Man Named Mendonsa,
Chapter Five - How the Striped Bass Stopped a Highway and Eluded the Mob,
Chapter Six - How Rhode Island Changed the World,
Chapter Seven - Showdown at Friendship Airport,
Chapter Eight - Revolt of the Biologists,
Chapter Nine - Striper Magic,
Chapter Ten - The Double-Edged Sword of "Full Recovery",
Chapter Eleven - The Myco Mystery,
Chapter Twelve - The Town That Menhaden Built,
Chapter Thirteen - Upriver,
Chapter Fourteen - California Stripers,
Chapter Fifteen - Keepers of the River,
Chapter Sixteen - Stripers Forever?,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a compelling and focused look at one environmental issue that has attracted interest from men and women who, generally, aren't involved in civic action or environmental work. Part biography of striped bass, part exploration of sport fisherman, part explanation of the interconnectedness of business and environmental interest, this book does a good job of not only explaining an increasingly serious issue over the last few decades, but also showing the Human side of our effects on the environment. Much time here is spent on the commercial interests involved, on agricultural effects and interests, and on, simply, pleasure and tradition. Russell's research brings him in contact with corporate America, farmers, and small-town businessmen even moreso than scientists and sport fisherman, though all are represented, and the time spent on research is obvious.For straight non-fiction, this is a fairly easy read, obviously written for the layman with a passing interest in the subject or an interest in general environmental science or fishing. It might be a lot to take in one sitting, but for anyone with a life or living connected to the coast (or near-coastal tourism), or with an interest in further understanding the interconnectedness of day-to-day business with the environment, I'd recommend this as a worthwhile read.