Despite objections from many of the state’s anglers, New York recently decided to allow sale of black bass in markets and restaurants. The regulation stipulates that they must be hatchery-raised, but the words of Seth Gordon, the first conservation director for the Izaak Walton League (IWL), serve as a chilling reminder of what once was and what could again be when we don’t learn from history.
“So long as there is a legal market anywhere, you may bank on it that thousands of pounds of illegally caught bass will be sold,” he said during IWL’s all but forgotten campaign during the 1920s to save black bass from decimation by commercial harvest.
Well into the 20th century, black bass were commercial, as well as sport fish. Even as government agencies stocked fish anywhere and everywhere and closed seasons limited sport fishing, commercial fishermen harvested largemouth and smallmouth bass with pound and fyke nets, as well as other means, for sale in the fish markets of many cities.
“Eulogy on the Black Bass” read the headline in a 1927 issue of Forest and Stream, and another in 1930 screamed, “Defrauding Ten Million Anglers.” In the latter article, Edward Kemper slammed the Bureau of Fisheries for “overseeing the slaughter of millions and millions of black bass” and he included a “role of dishonor,” naming 10 states that continued to allow sale of bass in markets.
IWL was the prime mover for passage of the Black Bass Act of 1926, which was introduced into Congress by Rep. Harry Hawes of Missouri. As the law prohibited shipment of bass across state lines, IWL also worked within those states to outlaw commercial harvest.
I learned about this little known chapter in bass history from Jim Long, assistant unit leader of the Oklahoma Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at Oklahoma State University. He came across this and other long forgotten information as he prepared a presentation on the history of black bass management for a Black Bass Diversity Symposium at a Southern Division Meeting of the American Fisheries Society.
“I’ve read some histories of fisheries but I’ve never seen one for black bass,” he told me. “I wanted original newspaper clippings, not third-hand accounts, and data bases made that possible,” he said.
Pouring through archives, Long found a headline from the 1920s that proclaimed “Hoover Laments Decline of Fishing.” And he discovered that the New York Times listed black bass regulations during the 1870s. “That’s something you don’t see today,” he said.
As he divided his search into major time periods, starting with the 1800s, what surprised Long the most were the influential roles played by the IWL and, before that, by Dr. James A. Henshall.
Author of the 1881 Book of the Black Bass, Henshall was a medical doctor and passionate bass angler. The most quoted line in bass fishing literature belongs to him: “I consider him (black bass), inch for inch and pound for pound, the gamest fish that swims.”
Henshall’s passion, said Long, was to promote black bass as “a pre-eminent gamefish.” But the doctor also was a “lumper,” countering decades of science that preceded him.
Long coined that phrase as the opposite to “splitters,” which describes those who recognize multiple bass species.
“Henshall did a lot of really good work, but he considered the spotted bass a smallmouth, the Guadalupe a largemouth, and the Florida a largemouth,” Long explained. “And he was the authoritative voice.”
So, even though the smallmouth bass and then largemouth bass were identified in 1802, the spotted bass in 1819, the Florida bass in 1822, and the Guadalupe bass in 1874, Henshall’s lumping successfully countered their acknowledgement as separate species until the 1940s.
By the way, no one knows where that first smallmouth was caught before it was shipped to France to be analyzed and given its Latin name. But what Long discovered is that the black bass’s keystone designation as Micropterus was based on a damaged dorsal fin. “It looked like it had a second, smaller dorsal,” he said. “And that word means small fin or wing.”
With improvement in science over the decades, especially in genetics, Henshall’s lumping has fallen out of favor and we’re not likely to name any new species based on an imperfection. Also, we’ve become much more selective about how and when we stock, and we’re focused on improving habitat as never before as a way to sustain fisheries.
All those are good things. Seeing what has happened in New York, though, I am troubled by our politicians and their propensity for repeating harmful chapters in our history.
(This column appeared originally in B.A.S.S. Times.)