All About That (Striped) Bass, New York’s Most Beloved and Politicized Fish
In which our OnlyFins columnist devotes her life to striped bass.
12:00 PM EDT on June 7, 2023
I've smoked more weed in the past couple of months than I usually do in an entire year. I've also lately devoted my life to fishing for striped bass, or striper, spending every free hour on various piers along Brooklyn's waterfront, my hands covered in the blood and guts of the bunker I cut up to use as bait.
The two are related: Striped bass fishers, it turns out, are generous potheads. One sunny April afternoon on the pier, I met Bob, a middle-aged, Italian Brooklynite, sitting on one of the benches smoking an off-brand cigarette and rolling a joint, which he promptly handed to me despite my protests.
Bob is a pier regular, and we soon realized we had a friend in common—Eli, a Chinese-Vietnamese fisher in his late 50s whom I had convinced to mentor me, and who's widely known as a skilled fisher with a preternatural ability to catch striped bass on artificial lures. We chatted about weed and the price of gas and Kathy Hochul and, naturally, fishing ("Why do you need a fishing permit on land they stole?" he said to me repeatedly, pleased with his turn of phrase), and I must have passed some sort of unspoken test, because Bob soon introduced me to his crew, a group of mostly Puerto Rican and Dominican dudes with the odd Chinese guy thrown in. Most everyone had a lawn chair and a beer, clearly understanding that one of the central, primal pleasures of fishing is not fishing, but the whole vibe of fishing. Someone was blasting Whitney Houston from their car.
Eli had evangelized to me about lure fishing, but after several frustrating nights jigging with no success, I had decided to switch to using fresh bunker, or menhaden. Bob's guys were all targeting striped bass using the same setup I was, a fish finder rig with cut bunker. Pedro, a Dominican New Yorker in his thirties, introduced himself, before offering me (you guessed it) a joint, as well as an entire sleeve of slightly crushed crackers.
Pedro lived nearby and had fished the pier for most of his life; once, he told me, he even caught a puffer fish that had somehow made its way to the city's waters, which he promptly took home and placed in his large fish tank. "You're gonna catch a fish," he promised me. I bought a bell from an elderly Chinese man who was pedaling around the pier selling fishing gear, slipped it onto my rod, and waited. "I wanna hear that ding ding ding!" Bob called out.
If fly fishing conjures up an elitist whiff of the gentleman trout fisher, and the public image of the largemouth bass angler is someone who can casually drop thousands on a fiberglass boat, then striper fishing is for the rest of us. Maybe that's why the striped bass, with its glimmering, pinstriped body, is so beloved up and down the East Coast, and especially in New York, where come spring, crowds of anglers begin lining up along the city's edge, all hoping to reel in a monster. (As the New York Times once wrote, "No fish is more emblematic of New York's waterfront setting.")
"They're kind of a consummate urban fish," the fish biologist and striper fanatic John Waldman told me of the striped bass—true born-and-bred New Yorkers, many of which were conceived in the Hudson River, one of the country's main striped bass spawning areas, who "exist in polluted waters and don't mind human-made structures."
There's an egalitarianism to striper fishing, of the kind that is rapidly diminishing in our city. "Your average person can go buy a surf rod, or some kind of outfit for 100 bucks, get some bait, go down to some location near where they live, cast out, and hook a trophy fish," Waldman said. "And you can't do that with tuna. You can't do that with marlin. You can't do that with giant cod. But this fish lives among us." When we spoke, he had just caught a few stripers himself out in Long Island's Little Neck Bay. All you need, Waldman added, is to "find some access in the city."
I didn't hear that ding ding ding that day, but a group of Spanish-speaking guys clustered at the end of the pier had somehow figured out where the stripers were, and what they wanted; I watched them enviously as they threw their catch into a trash bag. "Fucking poachers," one guy next to me sneered. Eli, too, always had harsh words for "poachers" whenever we fished together; at times, he had even tipped off the Department of Environmental Conservation, telling a cop at the state agency where someone illegally fishing could be found.
Eli rarely keeps a bass. Despite his success—one night, I saw him reel in striper after striper, and he had already caught (and released) several "keepers" before the official start of striper season on April 15—he remembers when the striped bass fishing was really bad. And while it's gotten better, he knows that it can—and does—always change: "The fishing was a lot better twenty years ago."
It's no exaggeration to say that anglers' love for the striped bass—one could reasonably call it an obsession—has indelibly shaped the city and its surrounding regions, and even national politics. In the 1960s, it was the striped bass that, according to historians, "helped launch the modern environmental movement"—and right here in New York. At the time, Con Edison had plans to build a sprawling hydroelectric plant along the Hudson River, at the base of Storm King Mountain. But that stretch of the Hudson, it turned out, was a prime striped bass spawning ground, and fishers soon worried that building a plant described as "the largest of its kind in the world" would kill untold numbers of bass. But no one (and certainly not then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller) cared very much until a few muckrakers uncovered evidence that the nearby Con Ed nuclear facility at Indian Point was leading to huge fish kills, to the point that the utility company, as the writer and fish advocate Dick Russell wrote in his book "Striper Wars," "had two trucks hauling dead fish to the dump when the plant was in operation." Photos, which the state had attempted to keep from the public, showed "piles of dead striped bass a dozen feet high."
A local group's lawsuit over the proposed hydroelectric plant, which prominently featured the potential plight of the striped bass, led to a landmark decision that established, as David Schuyler, the author of "Embattled River: The Hudson and Modern American Environmentalism," wrote, "the right to bring an environmental dispute to court" to protect natural resources for the first time. It also, Schuyler noted, helped lead to the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, "the foundation of modern environmental law."
But it was the organizing campaign, led by fishers, that really killed the plant, not the lawsuit. After more than a decade of agitation, the striped bass won. At the end of 1980, Con Edison, negotiating with environmental groups, agreed that there would be no power plant at Storm King; instead, the land would be added to a state park. As the attorney for the environmentalists put it to Russell, "The fish saved Storm King. And striped bass were the fish."
Closer to the city, the striped bass doomed the Reagan-era Westway highway project, which would have required infilling a length of the Hudson River that was a critical winter habitat for the fish. After groups fighting the highway project filed a federal lawsuit arguing the highway would have detrimental impacts on air quality, health, and yes, the striped bass who swam around the piers jutting into the river, the judge in the case agreed to hear them out—but only on one issue: the fish. ("Let's hope the striped bass will have the sense to move across to the Jersey shore," Mayor Ed Koch reportedly quipped.)
In 1985, after years of back and forth, the striped bass lovers won, again—Governor Mario Cuomo and the mayor announced that Westway was no more. That victory for striped bass trickled down to the rest of us; the federal money earmarked for the highway would end up largely going to the MTA and public transit.
Westway had been pitched at a bad time for the highway—during the fishery's astonishing decline, which caused widespread concern for its future. Beginning in the '70s, anglers raised the alarm that the striped bass population up and down the East Coast had collapsed, due to some combination of commercial overfishing, pollution, and possibly, acid rain. An indication of how dire the situation was: In just one decade, the East Coast commercial catch of stripers dropped from about 15 million pounds in 1973 to just little over two million pounds in 1983.
The fate of the striped bass became a hotly discussed topic in statehouses along the Atlantic, as well as in D.C., and while everyone involved had reasons to want striped bass to thrive, certain battle lines were drawn—commercial fishers, i.e., those who caught fish to make their living, versus those who fished for fun, who were beginning to gravitate toward catching and then releasing the fish they caught—and skirmishes between the two camps erupted.
By 1983, according to Russell, "the striped bass had become the most controversial issue in New York politics." That year, Governor Mario Cuomo was all but forced to sign a hotly contested bill that limited the size of striped bass that people were legally allowed to keep. A few years later in 1986, due to alarmingly high levels of PCBs found in New York's striped bass, the result of decades of dumping in the Hudson River by General Electric, the state temporarily banned all commercial striper fishing.
Nationwide, momentum to save the striped bass built to the point that in 1984, Congress passed the Atlantic Striped Bass Conservation Act, which required all states to reduce their catch by 55 percent, or else face a moratorium.
Despite the best efforts of Billy Joel, who got himself arrested in the Hamptons in 1992 as part of an ultimately doomed campaign led by Long Island baymen, government regulation worked. Today, the striped bass is seen as the "poster child of successful fisheries management." According to marine conservationist Carl Safina, the return of striped bass to our shared waters is "probably the best example in the world of a species that was allowed to recoup through tough management and an intelligent rebuilding plan."
That tough management has been carried out by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), the regulatory board that has been empowered by Congress to manage the striped bass population.
But in recent years, striper lovers have been loudly saying that their beloved fish is under threat once again, and demanding that the commission do more. In 2018, the ASMFC declared that striped bass were overfished, and more recently, new warning signs have begun to appear. While 2022 had, in the words of one boat captain in Long Island, "the best two months of striped bass fishing that just about all of us had ever seen in decades," that bounty is likely temporary, the result of an extremely strong 2015 spawning class whose members began entering the slot—the minimum and maximum length to legally keep a fish—in 2022, and one that hasn't been seen since.
If people are keeping all of these spawners, will there be enough fish left to reproduce? That's the worry. "The one thing that has been sort of troubling over the last decade is that they haven't had really large year classes, and it's been anywhere from poor to mediocre," Waldman, the fish biologist, told me. "And it's been long known that when it comes to striped bass fishing up and down the coast, you need these really exceptional year classes to carry the fishery and make it far more productive than it would be." Twenty years ago, he said, echoing my friend Eli as well as conservation groups, the striped bass fishing was "far superior": "It was far, far easier to catch fish back then than it is now."
And then, earlier this year, the ASMFC dropped a bomb, releasing numbers that shocked everyone—the striped bass recreational catch, which far outstrips the commercial haul every year, had doubled from 2021 to 2022, dramatically reducing the chances of the population recovering by the end of the decade. "The stage is set for the Management Board to act when it meets in May," declared New York angler and conservationist Charles Witek.
Tony Friedrich, the vice president and policy director of the American Saltwater Guides Association, was blunt when we spoke at the end of April. "We're going to be in deep shit," he told me, if the ASMFC doesn't take steps to address what he and his group believe are not just warning signs, but an existential threat to the striped bass population. "If you destroy this 2015 year class, then we have nothing to rebuild with. And it takes a long time for these fish to reach sexual maturity. So what are we going to do? I mean, you think we would have learned," Friedrich said. "And by the way, in the early '80s, they were saying the exact same thing—'You're crazy, fishing's great.'"
Friedrich, who lives in the Chesapeake Bay, often hears criticism from anglers in New Jersey, but he brushed those aside. "New Jersey is the nexus of evil when it comes to fisheries," he said, pointing out that out of the 35 million pounds of striped bass caught in 2022, New Jersey fishers accounted for 14 million pounds of that haul. (As for New York? "New York is better than New Jersey, which is a pretty low bar," he said, adding, "I would say that New York is always a swing state for stripers.")
"The New York, New Jersey fishermen are like, 'What, are you crazy? You enviro-Nazi psychopath, you don't want anyone to fish?'" Friedrich said. "And you're like, I'm glad y'all had good fishing. But this is it. There are no good year classes after this. And we have to rebuild this stock, because it's overfished and overfishing is occurring."
Like others, he had his eyes firmly on the upcoming ASMFC meeting. "This may not seem like a big deal, this meeting coming up in May, but this is kind of like Thermopylae," Friedrich said. "If we don't do anything for three years? I don't know how we get out of it. You're playing with house money."
Waldman had warned me about the siren song of striped bass fishing, and of the potential to become "totally enraptured." By the end of April, I had spent weeks fishing, hoping to catch my first striped bass, and all I had to show for my time was chronic sleep deprivation and a car that now smelled like fish guts and stale weed. But I had been seized by that grimly determined mania familiar to all fishers. "You don't catch fish if you're not fishing," I texted Eli and another friend one recent rainy Friday night, and loaded up my car and headed out; they promised to meet me later.
When I arrived at the pier, Bob was already there, as was another regular, who gave me some of his bunker. I slipped the bloody chunk of flesh onto my circle hook, cast out, and waited. The rain began pouring even harder, and I began questioning my life choices, which had led me to spending a gloomy Friday night sitting in my car.
My two friends arrived, dinner in hand, and as I got out to greet them, I finally heard it—that telltale ding ding ding. I rushed over, and began reeling, my rod tip bending every time the fish tried to dive down. Eli yelled to get the gaff. "Don't let it get under the pier," he cautioned me. Slowly, the fish emerged, the water churning as she thrashed. Eli threw the gaff out, lifting the bass up over the railing. I whooped, adrenaline coursing through me, and placed her body along a makeshift ruler someone had tacked to the rail. She was 27.5 inches, just a half-inch below the size limit, but nevermind that—I was never going to keep her anyway.
My friend snapped a photo of me holding her, a wild grin on my face; I threw her back in and she swam away and I whooped again. Someone had told me that everyone remembers their first striper. I finally understood why—aside from giving me the (false) feeling that I could, in fact, be a viable contestant on "Alone," I had, for a brief moment, been given the opportunity to hold something truly wild, a beautiful creature that had managed to hold on despite our very best efforts to make its survival, if not almost impossible, then unlikely, and a creature whose kind had existed here long before the first human. It was worth saving, on its own merits.
A week later, the ASMFC had their much-anticipated meeting—and in a move that surprised many observers, the board took emergency action, voting to implement a strict recreational size limit and a one-fish-per-day rule for all of its states, to be put in place by the beginning of July.
I caught up with Friedrich afterwards. "How about it," he told me. "The good guys won."
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