Twenty-five years ago, the striped bass were on the verge of disappearing altogether from our waters. Federal scientists trying to pinpoint a cause listed pollution in the Chesapeake Bay spawning grounds as one probable reason — from residues of the banned pesticide DDT to the new phenomenon of acid rain. The other factor was clearly overfishing, and only this could be addressed immediately. As a longtime summer fisherman on the Vineyard, I got deeply involved in what soon became a coastwide grassroots campaign to try to save this magnificent fish from the endangered species list.
It worked. After Maryland declared a five-year moratorium on striper fishing in its bay waters on Sept. 11, 1984, and the other states along the migration route followed with similarly strong conservation measures, the striped bass made an amazing comeback. Less than 10 years later, managers declared it a fully recovered fishery. As Scientific American said in 1995: “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.”
Today, sadly, the question is whether we may be witnessing a déjà vu. Last fall, Maryland’s young-of-the-year index of annual spawning success in the Chesapeake — where more than 75 per cent of our striped bass come from — fell to its lowest level since 1990, when the population was just emerging from its near-total collapse. An average of only 3.2 fingerling stripers were taken in each seine-haul, well below the long-term average of 11.7. Although some experts blamed a late cold front that may have killed many larvae, this marked the third time in the last seven years that the survey has been alarmingly lower. The mega-spawning years of 1989, 1993, 1996 and 2001 haven’t been remotely approached — yet the allowable catch levels and quotas remain based on a theoretical abundance of fish from the 1990s.
Last November, scientists from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science published a study showing that a chronic wasting disease called mycobacteriosis — now at epidemic proportions, detected in sixty per cent of the Chesapeake’s striped bass — 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 Massachusetts.
David Gauthier, lead author on the recent study, calls it a stress disease. Since a higher mortality rate seems to occur during the summer, it’s possible that low-oxygen dead zones could be forcing the bass out of their preferred cold water into warmer areas. (Early in December, another scientific report concluded that the 25-year, $6-billion effort to clean up the Chesapeake has so far been a dismal failure). Many of the diseased fish are also emaciated, so an even more likely stressor is a lack of food — bay anchovies and the striper’s preferred prey, young menhaden. The Chesapeake Bay Ecological Foundation recently determined that malnutrition observed in more than 5,000 stripers is a consequence of such ecological depletion. A single company, Omega Protein, kills millions of menhaden annually to be ground up into fish meal and fish oil. A harvest cap implemented by regulators in 2006 has not proved effective, because menhaden landings since then have averaged 30 per cent below the cap.
At the same time, illegal catches of striped bass are escalating. At the end of January, investigators announced having broken up a black market involving watermen and fish dealers who sold millions of dollars’ worth of striped bass illegally taken from the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River to restaurants and shops around the U.S. The problem has been widespread in Connecticut and Rhode Island, too, and this is probably the tip of the iceberg.
What is to be done? For many Vineyard fishermen, striped bass last season were few and far between. Fish taken in the June catch-and-release derby were one-quarter of what they’d been only a few years before. The annual fall derby also saw a dramatic drop in landings. Some have placed the blame on huge mid-water herring trawlers discarding striped bass bycatch; off Chatham, fishermen once saw dead stripers stretching for three solid miles. Since herring also serve as important forage, clearly the trawlers need more onboard observers and stricter regulation. But curtailing them isn’t going to be a panacea.
In January, an act “relative to the conservation of Atlantic striped bass” was introduced for the first time in the Massachusetts legislature. It calls for much greater restrictions on recreational fishing, cutting the allowable take in half and changing size limits to protect a greater number of fecund female fish (one striped bass a day could be landed between 20 and 26 inches in length, or of greater than 40 inches). The bill also would prohibit commercial sale of wild stripers, already a law in seven of the coastal jurisdictions along the migratory route (Maine, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, the Potomac River, and South Carolina), as well as in federal waters three miles offshore.
While I don’t sell my catch, I have resisted supporting such a measure until now; I don’t like the idea of taking away part of anyone’s livelihood. However, I have reluctantly concluded that banning commercial sale is a conservation necessity. Already farm-raised striped bass comprise more than 60 per cent 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 the Massachusetts legislation would require any sold to bear a tag from the grower or distributor.
Approximately 1,200 active market striper fishermen in Massachusetts average selling about 850 pounds for around $2,000 a year, hardly a significant portion of income for a commercial fisherman. There could, however, be a dedicated fund to buy back commercial striped bass permits on an amortized basis, perhaps coming from a recreational saltwater fee. A century ago, market hunting drove many species of game birds and animals to near-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, if we’re to preserve them for future generations, there appears to be little choice but to follow such precedents.
Dick Russell is the author of Striper Wars: An American Fish Story (Island Press/Shearwater Books).