May 22, 2016
May 22 was another perfect late spring day. I made my way down a sandy path redolent with the soft bouquet of wild roses.
But as I overtopped the dunes I was hit with the tangier odor of offshore plankton. This was the smell of the spring ocean, that occurs when dense surface waters plunge down through the water column kicking up great clouds of nutrients. This overturn makes spring underwater as dramatic as that on land.
I had walked out here to see if sand was flowing through the sand machine, but I was in for a big surprise. My first hint came when I reached the beach.
The air was filled with the raucous cries of feeding terns. The sound transported me back to long hot summer days on Cape Cod. And it still held the power to get the hunter gatherer juices flowing. I hustled down the shore, to where I could see a flock of terns jostling for position over a school of striped bass.
A nearby fly fisherman was watching as a faint rose hue advanced across the evening sky. He stood hip deep in the swift current flowing out of the Merrimack River. I watched as he deftly laid a wet fly into a shallow riffle then twitched his line so his lure appeared to be wounded silversides as it struggled not to be swept over a lip of sand into an ominous pool of dark green oceanic water.
Then, blam! It happened. Striped bass started hurtling out of the green depths below and terns dove from the red skies above. Massacre was everywhere. Schools of frightened baitfish leapt free of the water only to be driven back down by the other vanguard of flying predators. The water was filled with the twitching bodies of half eaten fish and a slick of pungent fish oil spread across the ocean surface.
The fisherman soon had one of the young schoolies on his line. He reeled it in and carefully released it back into the roiling waters. Two casts later he caught and released a second small bass.
The schoolies would have sore mouths for several days but they would have also learned a life saving lesson. The next time they saw a baitfish swimming so erratically they would be a bit more careful before charging in for the kill. This was the way callow young schoolies become wise old cows weighing close to a hundred pounds.
After visiting the jetty I returned and the fisherman told me he had caught four more fish in half an hour. The same thing was being repeated up and down the East Coast. Millions of schoolies had emerged from their nursery grounds in Chesapeake Bay and were now spreading north and south from Maryland to Maine.
These were the second generation of the 2011 year class of fish that had spent three years maturing in the Chesapeake and would then return next summer to lay their own eggs.
The 2015 year class was even larger. Some of the older female fish could lay four million eggs a year. Given half a chance the fecundity of such fish will be rewarded. They are a species built for survival.
But what was it about 2011 and 2015 that made these year classes so successful? Embryonic striped bass are particularly susceptible to acidity, salinity and pollution. Could it be that the amount of snow that Maryland and Virginia experienced those two years caused pulses of fresh water to flow into the Chesapeake lowering acidity and salinity, and sweeping the polluted waters out to sea?
Whatever had happened, the recovery of striped bass now rested on the shoulders of these two year classes of fish. Hopefully they would be carefully managed so the year classes would continue to reproduce after the females reach their present 28-inch legal size. It would be testament to mankind’s ability to work with nature to bring such a fecund creature back from the depredation of its environment.
William Sargent’s latest book, Plum Island; 4,000 Years on a Barrier Beach, is available in local bookstores and at http://www.ingramcontent.com.