Striped Bass: A Cautionary Fish Tale
The 1980s fight to bring back the striped bass is considered one of the greatest environmental success stories. But, today the species faces a new and potentially devastating threat: the omega-3 market. Author Dick Russell talks with host Steve Curwood about what it will take to save a species that's already been saved.
CURWOOD: Fishermen all along the eastern seaboard won't soon forget the 1980s, a time when lines came up empty for striped bass. The species had been fished to near-extinction, and the fight to bring it back has gone down as one of the greatest environmental success stories. Dick Russell was on the frontlines of that effort and now anticipates a second conflict on the horizon that fishermen might not be ready for. He's an environmental journalist and author of “Striper Wars: An American Fish Story.” I went out on the water with Dick Russell near Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and asked him what it took to bring the fish back.
RUSSELL: Eventually, it took pretty much a complete shutting down of all the fishing along the Atlantic Coast. Striped bass migrates from North Carolina all the way to Maine and sometimes even to Nova Scotia. And, eventually, the state of Maryland, which is where most of the stripers on the Chesapeake Bay – excuse me, on the Atlantic Coast – come from, declared a five-year moratorium. And when they shut down the fishery in the spawning grounds I knew that that was gonna do it. I didn’t know the fish would ever come back to the extent they have today, but it took a near total shutdown of the entire Atlantic Coast fishery to do it.
CURWOOD: Now, one of the people that was involved in the bass recovery effort is what, a postman? His name is Jim White. And I understand he has a whale of a tale?
RUSSELL: He really does. It’s one of those magical stories that kinda has no explanation.
He had become bitter enemies with a sports fisherman who owned a bait and tackle shop named Joe Mollica. And they’d become enemies because they took different sides on the moratorium question, whether Rhode Island needed to shut down fishing or not for a period of time, and Mollica didn’t think so.
One day, Jim was out fishing and his reel broke. This was after the moratorium had been declared in Rhode Island, Maryland and elsewhere. So he needed to get it fixed and the closest place he could do that was this bait and tackle shop that Mollica owned. So he went there, and he saw this beautiful fishing rod on the wall. And he asks Mollica about it, and Mollica said, “you want one, I’ll make it for you.” Jim thought, “oh, jeez, I don’t know if I can do that, we’re enemies.” But anyway, he said, “okay, I just love this rod. I gotta have this rod.”
So Mollica made it for him. He came back, he got it, he went striped bass fishing I think that same day – this is a time when there are very few striped bass around – and on every cast he made he hooked into an incredible bass with this rod. And he was shaking. I mean, he said he looked up at the heavens at one point and said, “Lord, if you’re going to take me, take me now.” He just hadn’t had an experience like this in lord knows how long.
So he caught all these fish and finally he went running back to Mollica’s tackle shop and he says, “what did you do to this rod? Is it haunted? I can’t believe what’s happening!” And Mollica says, “I think it’s just a lucky rod for you.” Well, he went on catching striped bass when nobody else could with this rod, all kinds of great adventures, for 79 consecutive trips. And on the 80th trip the spell was broken somehow. He didn’t catch a bass.
And he happened to look up in his log book, he kept a log book of all the meetings he’d attended, and, you know, kind of everything he’d been doing in fishing for a period of years, and for some reason he just started counting up the meetings that he and Mollica had attended. And they had gone together to precisely 79 meetings, and there had never been an 80th. And that’s exactly the number of trips with that magic rod that Joe Mollica made for him. That’s how many stripers he caught. Now, they became friends again, and they remain fast friends to this day.
CURWOOD: And that has to be a fish story.
RUSSELL: (LAUGHS) I think it’s a wonderful fish story.
CURWOOD: What’s the trick to catching one of these fish?
RUSSELL: Well, it’s kind of like being in the right place at the right time. Plus, you just never know what they’re gonna do, they’ll confound you at any moment. If you hook into one they’ll wrap around a rock and, you know, just do everything they can to shake loose and shake you up. At the same time, it’s this very special feeling inside about a striped bass. I think it’s a soulful feeling. And that’s what made them worth fighting for long ago, and still today.
CURWOOD: Dick, I understand that maybe the striped bass is headed for another crash?
RUSSELL: Well, we hope not, but there’s a big, big problem happening again today in the Chesapeake Bay and it’s ecosystem related. Almost 70 percent of the striped bass are suffering from a bacterial infection, and it’s sort of a chronic wasting disease that gives them lesions and also impacts their internal organs. It’s being studied extensively by scientists from all along the coast. And it appears to be stress-related.
That stress appears to be coming from the fact that they’re not getting enough to eat. A lot of the fish that you’re seeing in the Chesapeake today, and even along the Atlantic Coast as they migrate, are very emaciated. And they’re turning to things like lobsters and blue crabs and things that aren’t as nutritious for them as this little bony, oily, inedible fish called a menhaden, which has always been the preferred food of choice for striped bass. And there aren’t as many menhaden around and now it appears that they are being overfished in the Chesapeake.
Menhaden are used – they’re brought back and they’re ground up into fishmeal, which is used to feed chickens and hogs and also for aquaculture. And then they’re also being used increasingly for the oil, fish oil. Because they’re very oily fish, and it’s being used for omega 3 vitamin supplements.
CURWOOD: So the person who buys that capsule containing omega 3 vitamin maybe is helping hasten the demise of the striped bass?
RUSSELL: I’m afraid that’s true, or could be true. I’m just afraid if they continue to fish menhaden at the levels they have been – which is taking like literally millions of fish, millions of pounds of fish every summer – that not only are the menhaden going to perhaps disappear, but all the striped bass may go, too.
CURWOOD: I want to read a bit from your book. Quote: “Everybody was so happy to have plenty of striped bass it makes it very difficult for people to let go of the success story. That’s what’s going on today. They can’t afford to believe it might not go on forever.”
Dick, is there a mental block against the idea that bass might again be in danger? Who has that block?
RUSSELL: Oh, I think a lot of fishermen have it, you know, especially because there’s so many striped bass in the last ten years and they’ve been going up every year. You know, the regulations have been getting more and more lax because there are a lot of fish out there to catch. You know, my book I believe is a cautionary tale because we’d all like to – I would too, you know – like to sort of rest on what happened 20 years ago, and the fact that that worked and the fish have come back.
And yet, today we got a whole ‘nother new set of problems, and I think it’s a slowly dawning awareness. I think that, you know, the necessity is for constant vigilance, and that’s the message I’m trying to get out there.
CURWOOD: Well, thanks, Dick. Your book is called “Striper Wars: An American Fish Story.” Dick Russell, thanks so much.
RUSSELL: Thanks, Steve. So good to be with you today.
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