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A Rain Of Death On The Striper?
Robert H. Boyle
April 23, 1984
Pulses of acid rain arriving in the stripers' spring spawning season may be the doom of this legendary inshore game and table fish
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April 23, 1984

A Rain Of Death On The Striper?

Pulses of acid rain arriving in the stripers' spring spawning season may be the doom of this legendary inshore game and table fish

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Consider the plight of the striped bass, the legendary game and food fish of the Atlantic Coast. Late last month, the House Subcommittee on Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation and the Environment held a hearing on a bill, H.R. 4844, introduced by Representative Claudine Schneider (R., R.I.). Mrs. Schneider's bill calls for a three-year moratorium on possession of striped bass by sports and commercial fishermen anywhere on the East Coast, including spawning streams. She introduced it because mature striped bass are disappearing at an alarming rate. Worse, there aren't very many young fish joining the ranks. Most notably, the important spawning rivers tributary to Chesapeake Bay haven't produced a "dominant year class," a super brood of young, since 1970. Unless the trend is reversed, the striped bass in Chesapeake Bay will go the way of the passenger pigeon.

Since 1973, the sports and commercial catch of striped bass on the East Coast has declined by 90%, and this catastrophic slump has cost coastal counties from North Carolina to Maine a potential $220 million annually and 7,000 jobs. Even with striped bass in short supply, in 1980 the fish still generated $90 million in direct expenditures, $200 million in related economic output and 5,600 jobs, plus a heck of a lot of recreation, and superb eating.

The very idea that the striped bass is threatened is cause for alarm. For more than three-quarters of a million East Coast anglers, the striped bass is the glamour game fish, and for many commercial fishermen, the striped bass is the money fish, the difference between going broke and making a living. Ever since the days of Captain John Smith, who wrote that he had seen such multitudes of bass in the area "that one mighte go over their backs drishod," the fish has been esteemed. In 1639, the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed the first conservation law in the New World by prohibiting the use of striped bass as fertilizer, and in 1670 the Plymouth Colony used the profits from the sale of striped bass, herring and mackerel to found the first public school on this continent. In the 1870s, wealthy New Yorkers established striped bass fishing clubs on the Rhode Island and Massachusetts coasts, and Robert Barnwell Roosevelt, Teddy's uncle, declared that surfcasting for striped bass was "the noblest sport of the salt water." In the years after World War II, angling for striped bass along the Atlantic Coast became increasingly popular, and in 1970, anglers caught 73.3 million pounds of the fish while a decade later they landed only 1.3 million pounds.

Like the Atlantic salmon, the striped bass is an anadromous fish, i.e., it lives in salt water but spawns in freshwater rivers, notably the Hudson and the numerous larger tributaries of Chesapeake Bay, such as the Potomac, Patuxent, Choptank, Nanticoke and Chester. As recently as 10 years ago, the Chesapeake was known as "the queen of estuaries." There was no king. Estuaries are the most productive nurseries of fish and shellfish on earth, and the Chesapeake was the most bountiful estuary in the world. Historically, the Chesapeake supplied more than 80% of the striped bass that migrated along the East Coast. That fishery has gone into precipitous decline since 1974.

In a statement to the House, Schneider blamed fishing pressure and chemical contamination for the collapse of the Chesapeake bass stocks, and she asked for the three-year moratorium because "this is the minimum amount of time that scientific experts deem necessary for any recovery of the striped bass population to begin." She added, "If the annual survey of reproductive success in the Chesapeake Bay should remain at a critical level, the moratorium could be extended for an additional two years."

Sad to say, it is SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S opinion that the moratorium could be extended to 10 years with little or no improvement. This magazine has uncovered sufficient preliminary data and circumstantial evidence to offer the hypothesis that acid rain is significantly responsible for the decline of striped bass reproductive success, and benign neglect is no solution at all if that is the case.

Moreover, it's foolish to look at the striped bass in isolation, as Congress is now doing. Available data and evidence also suggest that acid rain may have had an adverse effect on six other commercially valuable species that spawn in tributaries of the Chesapeake in Maryland: white perch, yellow perch, American shad, hickory shad, alewife and blueback herring. As with the striped bass, populations of these species have diminished dramatically over the past 10 years. This decline began in some river systems as early as the 1960s, as an apparent consequence of the poor survival of eggs and larval fish—what biologists call "recruitment failure."

Additional data and evidence gathered by this magazine also indicate that some or all of the affected species in the Chesapeake may be undergoing recruitment failure elsewhere on the Atlantic Coast. Alarmingly, the Annapolis River in Nova Scotia has not had any successful reproduction of striped bass since 1972. Sexually mature fish, which are getting older and larger in size but fewer in number, enter the river to spawn in spring, and though the females lay millions of eggs, the fertilized eggs die off in the river water, which is subjected to acid pulses—stong, sudden doses of acidic water from storms or runoffs. In five years of studying striped bass spawning in the Annapolis, Brian Jessop of Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans was not able to collect any larval fish. He does know of another researcher who was able to collect some fish during that period—two.

As any aquarium hobbyist knows, water that is too acidic can kill off fish, especially in their younger stages when they are ultrasensitive. Acidity is measured on the pH scale, which runs from acidic at the low end to alkaline at the high. Every value below 7, the neutral point, is increasingly acidic. The pH scale is logarithmic, so that pH 4.6 is 10 times more acidic than pH 5.6, and pH 3.6 is 100 times more acidic than pH 4.6.

Ordinarily, rain has a pH of 5.6—because it combines with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to form weak carbonic acid—but this can be greatly depressed by sulfur and nitrogen oxides emitted by coal-burning power plants, smelters, boilers, vehicles and other sources of combustion. In the atmosphere, sulfur and nitrogen oxides can react to moisture and be transformed into sulfuric and nitric acids. These are strong mineral acids that intensify the acidity of rain, and when they fall to earth they can have a devastating impact on land areas and bodies of water that have little natural capacity to buffer themselves. For example, a watershed containing readily available calcium, magnesium or carbonates weathered from limestone can readily buffer acid in much the same way that an Alka-Seltzer tablet will neutralize an upset stomach.

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