Fish Feature

Stars and Stripers

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The American flag has seven red stripes with white in-between. Striped bass have seven black stripes with white in-between. Coincidence? I think not.

Striped bass, nicknamed stripers in the North and rockfish in the South, are iconic to the American maritime tradition. Historically, they can be considered one of our founding fish. Stripers were served at the first Thanksgiving feast in Plymouth, and in subsequent years, settlers relied on striped bass for food and fertilizer. Down in Jamestown, the abundance of striped bass captivated Captain John Smith as he noted, “I, myself, at the turning of the tide have seen such multitudes that it seemed to me that one might go over their backs dry shod”.

A wiper from Alabama. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Beyond the founding of Jamestown and the Massachusetts Bay Colonies, you could say the movement of stripers across the country is emblematic of manifest destiny and U.S. westward expansion. In 1879, striped bass were shipped by train to California and introduced into the Sacramento River Delta. Striped bass established a permanent West Coast population before Washington State gained statehood in 1889. And luckily for the landlocked states, striped bass are anadromous and have been stocked in lakes across the country. A hybrid version of striped bass and white perch, affectionately known as wipers, can also inhabit an even broader range of freshwater systems.

Striped bass have also proven themselves central to the American conservation ethic. Protecting the fish was the impetus behind America’s first conservation law in 1639, when the Massachusetts Bay Colony General Court ruled that striped bass were too valuable a resource to be used as fertilizer by maize growers and squash planters. Later, in the 1960’s, recreational fishermen sued the government to prevent industrial activity on the Hudson River from endangering striped bass spawning grounds. This action led to the country’s first environmental impact statement, setting the stage for the National Environmental Policy Act and eventually the Magnuson-Stevens Act as well as other fisheries legislation.

Fast forward to today, about three million recreational fishermen on the East Coast pursue stripers for the fish’s elusive nature, powerful fight, hefty size, and aesthetic beauty. Some even see the fish as a patriotic image: New Hampshire, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina have all designated the striped bass as their state fish.

Even more patriotic, the spring migration of striped bass from the Chesapeake Bay area northwards to Maine conveniently aligns with July Fourth festivities. It’s around this time that the typically dispersed, coast-wide population consolidates off New England waters to spend the summer. As millions of Americans venture to the shore to celebrate and watch fireworks, many will drop a line in hopes of hooking a striped bass.

If you happen to be among the millions of Americans targeting striped bass this season, please help conserve our founding fish. The stock is still slowly recovering from the 1985 collapse and relies on catch and release – especially of large, fecund female fish – for future health. If practicing catch and release, consider using circle hooks and minimize the time the fish is out of the water to reduce mortality. And if you want to take a striper for the table, remember to always check your local regulations.

Isaac Schuchat is an intern at Conservation Law Foundation and an avid recreational fisherman. Striped bass are his favorite fish.


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