July 5, 2008

The Comeback Fish

By Steve Grant, The Hartford Courant, Conn.

Jul. 5--On a late spring evening with the sun setting, the mouth of the Connecticut River was sprinkled with powerboats and kayaks from Old Saybrook to Old Lyme, most everybody fishing.

They were after striped bass -- big ones.

Herring and alewives were returning to the sea after spawning. The stripers -- and the anglers -- were waiting, among them Scott Karsten of Glastonbury, a lawyer, and Dixon M. Merkt of Lyme, a guide who was fishing for fun on this night.

In practically no time, Merkt tied into a hefty fish, demonstrating why the Connecticut River has become one of the great fisheries for this migratory species with an appetite to match its gaping mouth.

The bass hit hard, as they do, turning the rod into a bow.

"This is what we look forward to," Merkt said as he fought the fish. Earlier in the season, stripers are more numerous, but in late spring, the fish tend to be bigger, if fewer. It was at least 10 minutes before Merkt landed and released what proved to be a 14-pound fish.

The striped bass is one of the great comeback stories in fisheries management. Eric Schultz, an associate professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut, considers the species "the best example we've got" when it comes to fish-restoration work. Populations of many other troubled fish species remain depressed despite restoration efforts.

Karsten saw the turnaround firsthand. As a high school student in Westport in the 1960s, he fished in Long Island Sound. There were bluefish galore, but no stripers.

"You never saw one," he said. Now he catches stripers many evenings through the spring.

The comeback is so dramatic, stripers may be the most abundant species in the Connecticut River at times. There are no precise figures on the number of stripers in the Connecticut, but it clearly is in the hundreds of thousands. Compare that to the late 1960s and early 1970s, when a major ecological study of the Connecticut River was conducted: Stripers were almost nonexistent.

In the 1980s, when states imposed strict catch limits to rescue the species, there wasn't much point in seeking out stripers in the Connecticut, or along the Connecticut coast, for that matter.

Stripers, comfortable in salt or freshwater environments, have rebounded so dramatically, they continue to be an issue. There now are people who think they are too plentiful, that they dominate the Connecticut River, at times at the expense of other species.

There is little question that striped bass have significantly altered the dynamics of the Connecticut over the past two decades.

The river at times can be thick with younger stripers; the median size fish is about 20 inches long and capable of eating many kinds of prey, including eels, lampreys, smaller fish, even mayfly larvae -- a food source normally associated with trout.

"That is a major change for the Connecticut River," said Justin Davis, a fisheries biologist with the state Department of Environmental Protection and a student at the University of Connecticut whose doctoral dissertation is drawn from his striped-bass research in recent years.

Love 'Em, Hate 'Em While stripers have had a significant impact, biologists nonetheless caution that they're still trying to figure out just what is going on in the river, and they are not ready to say there are too many stripers. It is possible, Schultz said, that at one time there were even more stripers than there are now.

Stripers eat shad, stripers eat herring. But whether stripers are the main reason for declines in those species has not been established. Stripers also will eat young salmon migrating to sea, but, again, it is not clear that stripers can be blamed for the minimal progress in restoring Atlantic salmon to the Connecticut River.

"On the Connecticut River we have two kinds of anglers. Anglers who think striped bass are great. And others who hate them and are convinced they eat all the shad," Schultz said.

The fishermen below the Holyoke Dam on the Connecticut River in Massachusetts -- a great spot to fish for big stripers -- love striped bass. Davis and colleagues were electro-fishing below the dam one night, a process which temporarily stuns the fish in the river and allows crews to measure and count the fish in an area. It also ruins the fishing for that night. The DEP crew was pelted with squid bait by the anglers, and the tires on their vehicle were slashed.

Among those who think there are too many striped bass is Gary Rutty of Old Saybrook, a commercial shad fisherman for more than three decades.

"Back in the '70s we had all types of fish in the river. Now all we have is striped bass. That is all we have left," he said.

Rutty estimates there were more than 50 commercial shad fisherman 35 years ago. "Now we're down to 6 or 7." Rutty is convinced that the abundant, smaller striped bass are gobbling up juvenile shad as they leave the river to go to sea, thereby reducing future shad populations.

Because Connecticut anglers now can only keep striped bass over 28 inches, Rutty said striper populations remain so high they do more harm than good.

Some coastal states still have commercial bass fisheries, but others, Connecticut among them, have not reopened the fishery to commercial fishermen, who could be expected to aggressively pursue the fish. Striped bass have firm white flesh and are a popular food fish when available.

Soaring Population A return to commercial fishing, of course, is controversial, even with bass stocks robust at the moment.

"Let's never forget that only 30 short years ago commercial fishing pushed Atlantic striped bass to the edge of extinction," said Ed Mitchell of Wethersfield, secretary of Stripers Forever, a non-profit organization with the goals of getting stripers designated as a game fish and ending commercial fishing for the species completely.

While striper populations have soared, the species is not without its own problems, possibly because its prey -- species like menhaden and river herring -- is no longer as abundant.

Some striped bass in recent years are slimmer, and some of them are afflicted with mycobacteriosis, a disease that leaves the fish with open sores. One possible reason stripers are picking up the disease is that the fish are stressed from a shortage of food and therefore have become more vulnerable to infection.

Because the disease can be passed to humans, "The message to get out to the anglers is, 'if you see a fish with sores, handle it with care,'" Schultz said. Releasing the fish back into the water is a good idea, he suggested.

On a positive note, there is the possibility that striped bass spawn in the Connecticut River. Major spawning areas are the Chesapeake Bay and the Hudson River, but fish in spawning condition have been seen in the Connecticut.

There is no documented spawning, however, Schultz cautions, but if so, it would be beneficial for the species: The more areas in which a species can spawn, the less vulnerable it is if populations in one or more other spawning areas were to crash because of habitat degradation or changing environmental conditions.

Steve Grant can be reached at [email protected]

Visit www.courant.com/ctfishfor previous stories and photos from this series.


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