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
April 23, 1984

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.

Decades of incoming strong acids have depleted the buffering capacity of some bodies of water and soils; they have run out of Alka-Seltzer, so to speak. This has happened in the Adirondack Mountains in New York, where more than 200 lakes have lost their fish life because of acidification (SI, Sept. 21, 1981). Similarly, the coastal-plain soils in Maryland have scant buffering capacity. Since 1971, Dr. David L. Correll of the Smithsonian Institution and a team of scientists have been ivestigating the Rhode River watershed, near Edgewater, Md. In a paper delivered in 1982 and published this past February in a book entitled Geological Aspects of Acid Deposition, he reports that the coastal plain is "very vulnerable to acid rain." Correll notes that over a seven-year period (1972-78) the mean spring pH of the larger streams in the Rhode watershed dropped from 6.3 to 5.8. Asked his opinion of SI's hypothesis concerning acid rain and its effect on spawning in tributaries of the bay, Correll said, "I've been saying the same thing. I think it's a serious concern that people should be working on." Correll says that striped bass, which used to spawn in the Rhode River system, no longer do so, and that yellow perch "have become extinct" in the watershed. This spring he is monitoring fish spawning and pH levels.

The precipitation (rain, snow, even fog) that falls on Maryland is very acid, as acid as any in the world. Its pH ranges from 4.45 to 3.5; that is 15 to 110 times more acid than normal. A rainstorm in Baltimore three years ago had a pH of 2.9, more than 700 times more acid than normal. When a heavy rain hits this flat coastal plain, it's like throwing a bucket of water on a rubber sheet. What had been up in the sky a few hours before collects in the streams, and the streams can suffer sudden acid pulses. If the pH of a stream isn't being monitored daily, no one will notice the pulse. In a matter of hours, or a day, or two days, the pH can rebound to 7 or more, and the only witnesses to the destructive pulses are the larval fish that have been killed.

According to Dr. Serge Doroshov, who worked on the acclimatization of striped bass in Russia before he defected in 1975—he has taught animal science at the University of California at Davis since 1977—striped bass larvae have difficulty tolerating pH levels below 7. "Mortalities are higher in water with a low pH," he says. "I haven't seen the data [SI has for certain rivers], but with those pH levels I would speculate that striped bass larvae wouldn't survive. The larvae do best in water with a pH of 7.5 to 8.5. At Davis we raise them in water close to pH 8." Moreover, Doroshov adds, striped bass larvae are extremely sensitive to a sharp change of pH even within the favorable pH range. He cites two instances where a sudden change of pH by 0.8 to 1.0 caused 100% mortality.

Last year, the Power Plant Siting Program of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) monitored the pH of the headwaters of 23 coastal streams feeding into the Chesapeake. The study was designed by Dr. Tony Janicki of Martin Marietta Environmental Systems of Columbia, Md. and Michael L. Bowman of the DNR. One of the criteria used by Janicki—whose doctoral thesis stemmed from his studies of acid-affected aquatic systems—was that the streams had historically supported spawning runs of white perch, yellow perch, American shad, hickory shad, alewives or blueback herring. These species tend to spawn farther up freshwater systems than do striped bass. Monitoring took place in March and April, and the streams were sampled weekly, not daily. In those two months all 23 streams experienced acid pulses, each dropping to pH 5.8 at least once. The pH of 14 of the streams fell at least once to 5.5, and six of the streams suffered slumps to a pH between 4.9 and 4.5.

Acid rain can mobilize aluminum and other metals toxic to fish—in other words, draw these metals from the soil into the water. A level of only .02 parts per million of dissolved aluminum in stream water is considered to be lethal to many larval fish. The Maryland DNR study revealed that dissolved aluminum levels in some Maryland streams were so high, up to 2.00 to 3.00 pm on occasion—100 to 150 times the lethal dose—that authorities in the field have strongly questioned the method of aluminum analysis. That research will be extended this spring.

Jay O'Dell, the DNR biologist in charge of migratory fish, helped Janicki pick the streams. O'Dell has walked them all for years, and he says, "I've noticed a decline in spawning runs in some streams in the last 14 years. There's no doubt about it. The river herring [alewife and blueback] runs are gone, or there are reduced populations. The same for yellow perch. Runs are gone that were heavy in the 1970s. The run of yellow perch [in the Rhode River Watershed] is gone, and so are two runs at the head of the Magothy River. Since 1978, yellow perch no longer spawn at all in some freshwater streams. The die-off seems to come in the egg and larval stages. White perch appear to be following the same trend. There are no obvious physical changes, no new pollution. I used to think it was PCBs or chlorine, but now, from what I know, I believe [the cause is] acid rain."

Since 1980, DNR biologist Jim Uphoff has conducted a trawl survey for larval striped bass in the Choptank, a river on the Chesapeake's Eastern Shore. Among other functions, the survey gives the state an early estimate of spawning success. Jim Price, a charter-boat captain in Oxford, Md., is usually out on the Choptank at the same time Uphoff is, catching mature striped bass for research purposes. Price's family has spent 100 years fishing the Choptank, and he's sick at heart at what he has seen. "Back in the '60s and early '70s, the Choptank was full of striped bass," Price says. "In the fall, you could run through 10 to 15 miles of breaking fish. Now we've got practically nothing." In November, Price petitioned the DNR to have striped bass declared a threatened species and thereby accorded protection. The striper happens to be Maryland's official state fish and is on its great seal.

The story that Price and Uphoff tell of striper spawning in the Choptank is the same. Reproduction in the springs of 1980 and 1981 was, in Uphoff's words, "a disaster." In both years, trawls showed that striped bass had reached the larval stage, but after several days of heavy rain they disappeared and presumably died. No pH measurements were taken. In 1982, the Choptank yielded a good crop of striped bass. "It was a fairly dry spring," says Price. Uphoff adds, "The flow stabilized when the eggs hatched, and the fish survived." There were heavy rains again last spring, and striped bass production was nil. "Originally I was the ultimate skeptic about acid deposition in the Chesapeake system," says Uphoff, "but I'm far from that now."

Acid rain may also be affecting striped bass spawning in North Carolina. Last spring, Dr. William W. Hassler, at North Carolina State, wanted to collect living striped bass eggs from the Roanoke River—which along with the Hudson and Chesapeake Bay has been traditionally thought of as a prime striper spawning ground—for feeding experiments. He found only 35% of them viable.

Runs of American shad also are down in North Carolina, and are way, way down in Chesapeake Bay. In 1970 the Chesapeake shad catch was five million pounds, but by 1980 it had declined more than 80% and Maryland imposed a ban on shad fishing.

The ban remains in effect, yet there is no sign that the fish are making a comeback. Maryland DNR biologist Joe Boone, who in summer conducts a survey of the bay for young-of-the-year fish to obtain an annual productivity index for different species, says, "Our annual survey has failed to collect a single young shad in the vast nursery area of the upper Chesapeake Bay for 10 consecutive years." According to bioassay tests done by the Pennsylvania Fish Commission, at about pH 5.5 half the shad eggs became nonviable, and many of the larvae that hatched from the surviving eggs were crippled. At pH 5.2, only 32% of the eggs hatched, and all the surviving larvae were "severely crippled."

Since the 1960s, catches of alewives and bluebacks have slumped in Chesapeake Bay. In 1969, the Virginia catch was 30,446,000 pounds. A decade later the catch was down to 1,688,000. Trawling by foreign offshore fishing fleets in the late 1960s and early '70s has been blamed. So has Hurricane Agnes, which struck the Chesapeake in June 1972 and flushed juvenile herring from their prime nurseries. But Joe Boone's index figures show that the Choptank hasn't had decent reproduction of bluebacks since 1958, and Jim Price says, "The trouble with the herring started back in the early '60s. We used to see millions of them spawning in the Choptank, but we were getting no reproduction to speak of. I told the state back then, and all I got from the scientists was that everything is a cycle and all that— —. No one has ever proved a cycle to me. It was a failure of reproduction."

The same goes for yellow perch and white perch in many bay tributaries. Of the Choptank Price says, "I can't find hardly enough white perch to make it pay." Looking over the whole situation, Boone says, "Whatever is controlling the recruitment failure of anadromous fishes is up in the freshwater rivers and not in the bay, and recruitment failure has been fairly widespread. The eggs and larvae are long dead and gone before they get into the bay. I say it's time to stop speculating and get out there and take a look."

Congressional concern about the Chesapeake began in 1975 when Senator Charles Mathias (R., Md.) moved a bill through Congress authorizing the Environmental Protection Agency to do a five-year study of the Chesapeake's decline. At the time Senator Mathias said, "The bay is an organic whole. If one part is damaged, all parts are affected. It is of little use to study one link in an environmental chain without relating it to the whole. If the Chesapeake Bay is to survive, it must be addressed as an entity, as a total system without duplication and without omission."

The study eventually took seven years and was completed last September. It cost $27 million and documented degradation of the bay proper, but nowhere in its laundry list of problems did the EPA document any changes in pH levels in spawning rivers and streams, even though it seems apparent that the eggs and larvae are "long dead and gone" before they ever get into the bay. Last January, in his State of the Union address, President Reagan promised to "begin the long and necessary effort to clean up a productive recreational area and a special national resource—the Chesapeake Bay." This may be difficult, since the President also has steadfastly refused to take remedial action on acid rain, asking instead for further study.

Specific Congressional concern about striped bass began in 1979 after Senator John Chafee (R., R.I.) read John N. Cole's book Striper, in which Cole predicted that the fish would eventually be done in by chemical contamination. Shortly thereafter, Chafee saw to it that Congress passed an amendment to the Anadromous Fish Conservation Act, which called for a $4 million Emergency Striped Bass Research Study (the final price tag was $5 million). This past February the biologists in charge of the study, Dr. John Boreman of the National Marine Fisheries Service and Dr. C. Phillip Goodyear of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, presented a draft to Congress in which they concluded that "no single contaminant has been identified that can be considered responsible for the decline in the coastal stock." However, they noted, laboratory studies "suggest" that combinations of chemical contaminants "may be" contributing to the decline of early life stages. In addition, fishing "may be" inhibiting production. This report prompted Representative Schneider of Rhode Island, whose state declared a moratorium on striper fishing last year, to introduce her bill.

In the draft of their report, Boreman and Goodyear also mentioned that "investigators from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources documented pH levels in the range of 5.9 to 6.9 in the striped bass spawning grounds of the Choptank River during the 1983 spawning season. This observation is important because this range of pH is below the optimum for striped bass larvae and juveniles, and because low pH may alter the toxicity of contaminants in the environment, particularly the inorganics [such as aluminum]."

Also in the draft report, Boreman and Goodyear noted that in contrast to the Chesapeake, the Hudson River "has maintained a steady level of production since 1969," even though the Hudson stripers had the highest PCB levels of any bass tested, making them unfit for human consumption. They attribute this "apparent enigma"—the fecundity of the Hudson as opposed to the barrenness of the Chesapeake—to the fact that it's permissible to catch smaller stripers in the Chesapeake than in the Hudson; moreover, the Hudson commercial fishery has been closed to striped bass fishing since 1976 because of PCB contamination. The report fails to mention that the "enigma" of the Hudson also encompasses an abundance of other species besides striped bass, such as American shad, which are intensively fished for in the river, as opposed to the shad fishing ban in the Chesapeake since 1980. The most obvious explanation is that the spawning grounds for striped bass, shad and other fish in the Hudson are highly buffered by its extensive limestone beds—in 1983 the low pH was 7.5 and the high was 7.8—whereas rivers and streams in the Chesapeake are subject to acid pulses. Boreman now says, "That is a hypothesis we cannot contradict at this time."

This spring, Boreman and Goodyear say, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Fisheries Research Laboratory in Columbia, Md. will study the interactive effects of acidity, contaminants and other environmental variables on the survival of striped bass eggs, larvae and fingerlings. The state of Maryland will also be doing acidity research on spawning rivers, so by June of this year the hypothesis that acidic water and acid pulses are disrupting striped bass reproduction should have been tested. "Right now, there is strong circumstantial evidence," says W.R. (Nick) Carter III, Program Chief for Environmental Review of the DNR's Tidewater Administration. "We have seven species declining at once, and we know that we have strong acid precipitation occurring at times in Maryland. That's all we know."

There is a pause. Carter then says, "For three of the last four days, it's been raining here. The streams are warming up, and the fish are coming in to spawn. Sometimes when I think about what might be happening, I just want to curl right up and die."

TWO PHOTOSJim Price, a fifth-generation Chesapeake Bay fisherman, sits out a shower that could wreak further havoc. TWO PHOTOSAs Janicki monitors a spawning stream, his pH meter displays a high level of acidity. PHOTOSchneider proposed a bass moratorium. TWO PHOTOSUphoff (foreground) leads trawling expeditions for bass fry: He says that three of the past four years have been "disasters." PHOTOBoone finds no young shad in the upper bay, few bass. MAPNINO TELAKThe Chesapeake once had more than 80% of the East Coast bass population.
SUSQUEHANNA R.
RHODE R.—
WASHINGTON D.C.
CHOPTANK R.
PATUXENT R.
NANTICOKE R.
WICOMICO R.
RAPPAHANNOCK R.
POTOMAC R.
RICHMOND
CHESAPEAKE BAY
ATLANTIC OCEAN
YORK R.
JAMES R.
0-20 mi.
FIVE PHOTOS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)