Our National Fish? Rally Around Stripers

PHOTO: Zach Harvey
PHOTO: Zach Harvey

The greatest overarching struggle we face as an industry (the fishing industry: commercial plus recreational) is economics—the lopsided relationship between us and other similar industries in terms of total jobs, total economic value, total political constituency, and total political juice.

Consider the well-worn commercial arguments about the role they play in feeding the people. Things get a little thin when you stack the fishery against Big Beef or Big Chicken. We are not, for better or worse, a nation of motivated seafood consumers. Overwhelmingly, our high-value domestic catches exit the U.S. as fast as logistically possible, bound for a host of global niche markets: Our squid goes to the Mediterranean nations; monkfish go to Korea (barring livers, which often land in France or Spain); large fluke and black sea bass, and the best of our tuna, usually feed the Japanese sushi markets; sea herring travel overseas (various destinations including Ireland and the former Soviet Union).

On the recreational side, related arguments from party- or charterboat captains that their primary function is as “bus drivers” giving seafood consumers access to fish they’d otherwise be unable to harvest, fall flat quickly. The more compelling arguments about sport-fishing’s contributions to coastal tourism draw on the rickety math of “trickle- down” economics—the numbers hard to defend even when they closely reflect reality.

What fishing generates in terms of total jobs, total tax monies, total revenues, looks as quaint as the fishing towns where it all happens when you stack the numbers up against other industries. We simply do not represent a large enough constituency or enough economic sway in sum (particularly outside coastal states)—and that’s as a fishing community united on all fronts. When you subdivide the fishing industry as many ways as it has been divided by almost any recent fishing issue, its power diminishes at an alarming rate.

Why does all this matter now? It matters because there’s doom and gloom in the headlines over the implosion of the Massachusetts groundfish fleet; there’s dissention in the ranks of the striper faithful over what many view, despite recent cuts, as a continued failure by the ASMFC to implement sufficient protections for one of our most important stocks. It matters because we, as a fishing community, need a a win for the home team, in the worst way right now.

When the Recreational Fishing Alliance announced in early May the introduction of a bill, the “Striped Bass American Heritage Act,” in the U.S. House of Representatives, friends and I figured this legislation might prove just the kind of rallying point we need. But the initial waves of reaction on the internet forums have suggested otherwise.

The “Findings” section of the bill enumerates some of the many intersections between our beloved Morone saxatillis and American destiny at key points in our history: that striped bass provided sorely-needed sustenance for early settlers; that revenues from early striped bass sales financed the nation’s first public school; that striped bass have demonstrated a particular resilience among all American fish, thriving not only in traditional striper rivers in the Chesapeake Bay and in the Hudson River, but even landlocked in impounded rivers across the heartland; that the striped bass captures the spirit of Manifest Destiny, traveling by rail car from NJ’s Navesink River to San Francisco, where a tiny contingent grew into a breeding, self-perpetuating discreet stock in the Sacramento River system among other West Coast estuaries.

The Bill further details the various ways efforts to protect striped bass stocks paralleled the developing environmental consciousness in America through the latter half of the 20th Century, most dramatically following passage of the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act, in 1984, which laid the groundwork for the now famous “moratorium” that, in conjunction with other regulatory efforts, restored populations to the extent the stock was declared fully recovered in 1995.

The internet forums, as expected, showcased the rantings and hair-splitting for which forums have become famous among the fishing media. Various individuals made cases for a host of species deserving a designation as our national fish. Cod won some votes, and frankly, I’d like to use some bully pulpit space here to address that issue. Most importantly, cod, while of utmost importance to the establishment of the colonies and the economics of the young nation (the details of which you can find in Mark Kurlansky’s incredible volume, Cod), the species is in no way uniquely American. In modern times, the European nations have managed once depleted cod stocks back to high and sustainable abundance, while we have, at every turn, fought to maintain our overcapitalized fleet at the expense of severely overfished stocks on Georges Bank and in the Gulf of Maine.

In contrast, all known natal striper rivers are in the United States, and the overwhelming majority of these coastwise migrants spend their entire life cycle in U.S. territorial waters. Stripers are American and American only. Their basic biology features an array of adaptations that perfectly suit foraging in near-shore waters.

Another major theme of resistance to the bill involved various far-fetched and paranoid
theories that drew parallels to long-standing campaigns—such as the one by Stripers Forever—to grant striped bass “gamefish status,” banning, in federal satute, the sale of any striped bass at any time.

Without getting into that whole can of regulatory worms, I would like to assure you, having actually read the entire bill, that there is no language bearing even the slightest resemblance to gamefish-status wording. In fact, I’d like to point out that one of the bill’s key backers, Jim Donofrio of the only national sport-fishing 501c(4) lobbying group, the Recreational Fishing Alliance, has opposed gamefish status from stock recovery in the 1990s onward. He has, when I’ve asked, dismissed the notion as, among other things, a political nonstarter at the federal legislative level.

As its name suggests, and in keeping with the personal style of its key backer, Donofrio, the bill is a simple, purpose-built piece of legislation. What it does, legally : It names the striped bass, M. saxatillis, the U.S. national fish. It is not some delayed-fuse statutory doomsday machine that will deliver leprosy to the striper-fishing public, or provide the Enviro Lunatic Fringe the foothold it needs to legislate fishermen right off the water. It is not some Beltway Trojan Horse concealing the worst anti-fishing law ever conceived by man. It will not ban hooks.

(If you’ve known me for more than a month, and especially if you’ve read my paranoid rantings and ravings for some years, you know how hard I tried to find something shady or underhanded in the bill. What I mean is that you should believe me on this.)

It is a bill befitting the stature of its namesake. It is a bill that seeks to elevate the stature of our fishing community’s most important and most revered quarry.

The most obvious criticism of the bill is also, ironically enough, the single most compelling reason to get behind it: It is a “feel-good” bill—quite the opposite of all other laws affecting that species. It is simple.

It’s critically important to note that the bill isn’t aimed at the striper faithful; it’s a bill designed to spread the word about a great fish and the reasons that is so. It’s a delivery system for an idea with political legs, a rallying point for the fishing industry and the politicians who know nothing about them.

Yes. It’s feel-good. And if, coming out of the last few years in fisheries management, you can’t see the value of feel-good, it’s probably safe to assume that you’re now part of the problem. Coming out of a couple of the most divisive years in recent fish-policy history, it’s time to find a reason to get back on the same page. The Striped Bass American Heritage Act is as good an excuse as any, and it’s better than most. Tell your legislators to get with the program.

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