How North America’s Most Popular Fish Nearly Went Extinct

How North America’s Most Popular Fish Nearly Went Extinct

Cast a line into any lake, river, or ornamental pond in the Lower 48 and you’re likely to pull out a black bass. The black bass genus Micropterus, the most famous of which are the largemouth and smallmouth, are native only to North America and have been the continent’s most popular game fish for at least 100 years. And for good reason.

In 1881, James Henshell famously described bass as “inch for inch and pound for pound, the greatest fish that swims.” The bass’s pugnacious temperament and voracious appetite make it a favorite among both novice and experienced anglers. They’re widely stocked in lakes and rivers, even outside their native range, and few anglers kill bass these days for anything but the trophy wall.

The fishing community wasn’t always so kind. In the early decades of the 20th century, the black basses nearly went extinct, and they likely would have if Congress hadn’t stepped in. Commercial fishing, unenforced regulations, and deforestation decimated the population of America’s fish to such an extent that a 1926 Senate report claimed the fish would be gone within ten years unless “extraordinary measures are taken to protect it.”

Anglers had noticed the problem, and they took to newspapers and outdoor magazines to describe an existential threat to black bass that sounds unimaginable today.

In 1921, W.M. Keil lamented the “fast vanishing supply of fishes” in an article titled, “Why We Have No Abundance of Fish.” He urged readers to lobby their representatives for better pay for fish biologists (that one still hasn’t materialized) and more effective re-stocking methods.

In 1927, Donald Stillman, associate editor for Forest and Stream, published a “Eulogy on the Black Bass” and described it as “the most abused of all American game fish” that “must be maintained in our local waters at any cost.”

In 1930, Edward Kemper wrote another article in Forest and Stream headlined, “Defrauding Ten Million Anglers.” Kemper pointed out the “exterminating by market sale” among the black bass populations and called on the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries to step in.

We could go on, but you get the idea. Black bass were in trouble, and it would take a concerted effort among anglers, conservation organizations, and politicians to slow and eventually reverse the decline.

Dynamite, Deforestation, and Dealers
Why were bass on the verge of extinction? It started with the inability of local and state officials to enforce game laws. Fishing licenses had been instituted after the Civil War, and states imposed creel limits and minimum size requirements by the end of the 19th century. But the isolated nature of many lakes and streams made enforcement extremely difficult.

In an 1884 New York Times article headlined “KILLING FISH WITH DYNAMITE” (you can see where this is going), the author laments that “pot fishermen” have for years been fishing many of the isolated lakes in Pennsylvania “without any regard for the provisions of game laws.”

In one instance, a “prominent resident and officer of the township” used dynamite on three separate occasions to blast fish onto the bank of a local lake for easy pickings. The stunt depopulated the lake, but the author doubted the responsible parties would be held accountable. The same experiment is reported to have been conducted on several other lakes in Pennsylvania and across the country.

Environmental factors also played a role in the decimation of the black bass population. Industrialization had been chugging forward in the United States for well over a century, and the accompanying deforestation and waste contributed to the decline.

Keil points out that “all too many of our lakes and streams… have been rendered unfit for fish life through pollution, deforestation, etc.” These waters have been “depleted of organic life through industrial wastes and other ravages of civilization.”

Several decades prior, American conservationist George Perkins Marsh described how deforestation and industrialization had increased the temperature of the water and the speed of the current in many bass fisheries—with deadly results:

“The quickened velocity of its currents sweeps [the young fry] down into larger rivers… before they are yet strong enough to support so great a change of circumstances… milldams impede their migration… sawdust from lumber mills clog their gills… and manufacturing establishments, poison them by shoals.” (Marsh, Man and Nature)

Commercial fishing, however, drove the black bass decline more than any other factor, according to fish biologist Jim Long.

“[The decline] was market-driven. It was market-level exploitation,” he told MeatEater.

Long works as the Oklahoma Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit leader and research fishery biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, and he co-authored an excellent primer on the history of black bass conservation in the United States.

Market fishermen targeted black bass during the winter when the fish were sluggish and congregated together in deeper waters. Using large nets, “it is not difficult for the fishermen to seine these fishes in such quantities as to seriously deplete the supply,” noted a 1925 congressional report.

Kemper includes in his “Defrauding” article an image of a commercial fisherman who had used a “trap net” to haul in more than 700 fish from the Potomac River in one outing.

Kemper also quotes Michigan Sen. James Couzens, who called the market sale of black bass, “a disgrace to America.”

In response to the dwindling supply, conservationist groups like the Izaak Walton League worked in state legislatures to ban commercial bass markets. They saw some success, as black bass did not constitute a huge percentage of fish sales, but commercial fishermen were still able to bootleg bass from states that had prohibited commercial markets to those that hadn’t.

According to one congressional report, black bass smugglers would transport the fish on train cars in barrels with “rough” fish at the top and bottom—and bass in between.

Fish population data from the period are difficult (if not impossible) to obtain, Long said, but it’s clear from the historical record that anglers, conservationists, and policymakers feared that the species would go extinct if no action was taken.

Anglers (and Congress) Step In
At the prompting of the Izaak Walton League and prominent U.S. representatives, Congress passed the Black Bass Act of 1926 to combat the interstate transfer of black bass. The act made it a federal crime to transfer smallmouth or largemouth bass that has been caught, sold, purchased, or possessed in violation of state law. The act was modeled after the Lacey Act of 1900, which imposed the same protections for birds and other wildlife and had effectively put market hunters out of business.

In theory, the act should have given the states a powerful federal tool to enforce their own laws. There was just one problem: Fhe act didn’t provide funding for the Bureau of Fisheries to enforce the act and failed to name the agency that was responsible for enforcement.

The result was that states continued to have difficulty enforcing their own bans on commercial black bass sales. According to a 1930 U.S. Senate report, commercial fishermen would claim that the bass in their possession were not taken in that particular state but were received from another state.

“The attempt of all but a few States to protect their black bass is nullified and made ineffective,” the report notes.

Fortunately, anglers were persistent. Congress provided enforcement and funding mechanisms in an amended bill in 1930, along with increased protections and penalties in subsequent amendments in 1935, 1947, and 1969. The Black Bass Act was eventually repealed and folded into the larger Lacey Act in 1981.

Black bass faced threats from exploitation later in the century, but the act of 1926 and subsequent amendments effectively transformed the species from a commercial fish into a game fish and saved it from extinction. Later efforts by advocates like Ray Scott and B.A.S.S. eliminated even the threat from sport fishermen by popularizing catch and release, and today wildlife agencies face the ironic challenge of managing a species that anglers refuse to eat.

Lessons for Today
Black bass weren’t the only species heavily targeted in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Passenger pigeons were also widely believed to be an inexhaustible resource, but the last of that species is thought to have been shot in 1901. If it wasn’t for the efforts of anglers and multiple acts of Congress, the black bass would have shared the same fate. Many popular game species like whitetail deer, elk, bison, and bighorn sheep narrowly escaped extinction with help from the Lacey Act as well.

The story of the black bass “shows us to be vigilant and be aware of our actions on the planet,” Long said. “Even for beloved species that are highly abundant, their fate is not necessarily certain. We can drive their abundance down and even out.”

Today, salmon face a similar kind of existential threat. Steven Rinella and the crew spoke in a recent MeatEater Podcast episode with journalist Mark Kurlansky about his latest book, Salmon: A Fish, the Earth, and the History of Their Common Fate. Kurlansky described how the salmon populations around the world are being depleted by forces like deforestation, commercial fishing, and climate change.

The black bass’s history is both a cautionary tale and a reason to hope. Salmon won’t be saved by a little community organizing and a simple act of Congress. Their situation is much more complex, and climate change is a wrench in the machine that may ultimately prove unfixable.

Still, black bass conservation efforts demonstrate the power of persistence. Americans were noting the devastation of unregulated and commercial hunting as early as 1823, when James Fenimore Cooper described in his novel The Pioneers the effects of net fishing on a lake in New York. It took more than 100 years for Congress to finally step in and grant the species federal protection, and they only did so at the insistence of the angling community. To save and protect any species, anglers, hunters, and conservationists must play the long game. Salmon won’t be saved overnight, but the black bass’s story suggests that they may yet be saved.

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