Fishing for the Future
Striper Wars: An American Fish Story. Dick Russell. x + 358
pp. Island Press, 2005. $26.95.
Can a book about a single species or genus of fish teach us more
about ourselves and our interrelationships with our environment than
it does about that fish? "Yes" is the answer suggested by
a rapidly growing literary genre that includes Mark Kurlansky's
influential Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the
World (1997), Richard Schweid's Consider the Eel
(2002), John McPhee's 2002 book The Founding Fish (starring
American shad), and a veritable bookcase about American salmon,
including such fine works as A Common Fate: Endangered Salmon
and the People of the Pacific Northwest (1995), by Joseph
Cone, and Salmon Without Rivers: A History of the Pacific Salmon
Crisis (1999), by Jim Lichatowich. To this genre we must now
add Dick Russell's wonderfully rich and provocative Striper
Wars: An American Fish Story.
This is an exciting, albeit somewhat disorganized, account of
perhaps the greatest success story in marine conservation: the
restoration of Atlantic striped bass, a species that, like salmon,
normally breeds in fresh water and spends its adult life in salt
water—and one that in the early 1980s seemed headed for doom.
Thanks to the victorious battles narrated here, the Atlantic States
Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) in 1995 officially declared the
species to be "fully recovered." But the story has not
ended, and the ending may not be happy.
As Russell demonstrates, many of the stripers teeming along much of
the Atlantic seaboard are malnourished and are therefore rapidly
becoming infected with Pfiesteria piscicida (a
dinoflagellate popularly known as "the cell from hell")
and—more ominously—a dozen different species of
mycobacteria. Why? Evidently because at the same time that we were
allowing stripers to become abundant, we were also allowing the
destruction of their most vital source of food, menhaden. A prime
component of the diet of many other prized Atlantic coast fish as
well as birds, menhaden are filter feeders crucial to the ecological
health of many Atlantic bays and estuaries. With the range of
menhaden collapsing, and with 70 percent of the catch now coming
from the Virginia waters of the Chesapeake Bay, the stripers' prime
spawning area, that crucial estuary is itself in serious danger.
Striped bass have been a powerful force in Russell's own life, and
he has been a significant force in the contemporary life of the
species. He has been a leader in the growing alliance of
recreational anglers, environmentalists and marine biologists who
waged the battles that rescued the species. He identifies himself
specifically as one of the millions of those recreational anglers
for whom the striped bass is "the premier gamefish to
pursue." Russell, like John McPhee, makes his own decades-long
ardent passion for his chosen species of fish central to the story
he tells, thus highlighting an irony of Striper Wars: The
survival of striped bass as a significant species depends on those
legions who hunt it, whose duality of predator and savior is
dramatically personified by the author himself.
Although this volume does not pretend to be a natural history of
striped bass, Russell projects a vivid and moving picture of the
mating, reproduction and migration of the fish, infusing the
narrative with his sense of wonder at their dazzling beauty, grace,
power and voracious ferocity as a predator. One important anatomical
detail that is skipped (an omission that is especially unfortunate
for readers who have never handled a striper) is the absence of
functional teeth, a crucial factor that determines how stripers must
feed and digest (and how one fishes for them).
After defining this "intrinsically American fish" as
"the aquatic equivalent of the American bald eagle,"
Russell sketches its roller-coaster history prior to the beginning
of the modern striper "wars." Early colonists of the
Eastern seaboard were astonished by the abundance, size and
delectability of striped bass. These are the very qualities that
have made stripers especially alluring targets for overfishing
(which began in the 19th century), but they are also the qualities
that have inspired and activated the fish's defenders when it has
been imperiled. Stripers, because of their tremendous fecundity and
adaptability, have managed to survive even in heavily polluted
waters, have been transplanted successfully from New Jersey to the
West Coast, and at times have even flourished—whenever we have
given them a modicum of protection from ourselves.
Commercial overfishing has been only the most obvious threat to
striped bass, as well as to the myriads of other marine species now
imperiled by human behavior. In the three main battlegrounds in what
Russell aptly calls the striper wars—the Hudson River, the
California Delta and Chesapeake Bay—the menaces have sometimes
been less blatant and far more politically potent.
On the Hudson alone, General Electric for decades poisoned the river
and its fish with transformer coolant laden with polychlorinated
biphenyls (better known as PCBs); Consolidated Edison's Indian Point
nuclear plant for years sucked in millions of stripers; millions
more would have been annihilated by Con Ed's proposed additional
power plant 15 miles farther upriver, at Storm King; and a prime
sanctuary for juvenile stripers would have been obliterated if the
vast Westway project to fill in part of the river along the western
shore of Manhattan had not been derailed, thanks largely to the
champions of striped bass.
Although stripers have somehow managed to survive the torrents of
industrial pollutants pouring into San Francisco Bay (their main
Pacific habitat), their numbers have plummeted as hundreds of
millions have been slaughtered by massive pumping of water from the
Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers to irrigate megafarms. What now
threatens the viability of striped bass in the Chesapeake, and
therefore as an Atlantic species, is a fatally synergistic
combination: Chemical runoffs (especially nitrogen) pour into the
bay from suburban lawns, golf courses and huge poultry farms where
chickens are fed hundreds of thousands of tons of ground-up menhaden
stripped from the bay. These runoffs produce deadly overgrowths of
algae. These overgrowths mushroom because the menhaden that would
have fed on the algae have been ground up to feed the chickens.
The heart of this volume is its engrossing and sometimes thrilling
narrative of the burgeoning movement against all these menaces.
Russell reveals the surprising roles played by stripers and their
champions in the initiation of key environmental legislation,
judicial decisions and other government oversight. Concern over the
survival of stripers inspired the formation of the Atlantic States
Marine Fisheries Commission in 1942. The fierce battle to stop Con
Ed's proposed plant at the base of Storm King Mountain, adjoining
one of the Hudson River's main striper spawning areas, was won in
1965 with the first court decision recognizing "environmental
standing"—that is, the right of citizens to sue a
government agency to protect natural resources. This judicial
principle then became federal law in the National Environmental
Policy Act of 1969, which requires all federal agencies to consider
the full environmental impact of all proposed projects.
When commercial overfishing threatened the viability of stripers in
the early 1980s, the resulting struggles in several Atlantic coast
states prompted Congress to pass the Atlantic Striped Bass
Conservation Act of 1984, the first-ever federal intervention in
"a fisheries management crisis in traditional state
waters." Then in 1990, the federal government took the action
that proved to be the key to the stripers' resurrection: banning all
commercial and recreational fishing for striped bass in the
exclusive economic zone of the United States—that is, the
waters under federal control stretching beyond the three-mile limit
(inside which fishing jurisdiction is generally conceded to the
states) out to 200 miles from shore. The defenders of striped bass
are now battling to keep that prohibition in place and to extend
some of the principles won in the striper wars to provide protection
for the most important of all Atlantic species: menhaden.
Dramatizing the evolution of these struggles decade after decade,
Russell demonstrates how they contributed to a rapidly widening
environmental movement, one that was moving steadily toward an
"ecosystem approach" to the human role in the environment.
Coined in the 1980s, this term was formally adopted by the United
Nations at its 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. Applied to the marine
environment, an ecosystem approach demands that we transcend our
dominant practice of making management decisions about each species
separately from all others and from their larger environment.
Striper Wars convincingly argues that our decisions
must be based on the interactive relations of all species, including
our own, within an environment influenced by multiple forces, human
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