Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Critter Tales: Saving Fogarty the Striped Bass

By Justin Cheves, communications intern

As Captain Dan Blount, captain of the M/V Alletta Morris, took hold of the massive trawling net, the Fogarty Elementary School third-graders accompanying him looked over the edge of the boat, eager to see what species they had gathered, and were quick to help haul in their catch. As they did so, they noticed a long fishing line tangled around their net and, thinking it was trash, went to work separating the debris. They knew from their lessons with Save The Bay that discarded lines and nets are harmful to sea creatures because of their tendency to tangle and trap fish, as they would soon see firsthand.

The line seemed to be carrying something—something thick and hefty. Was it a shark? A snapping turtle? The students and Captain Dan rushed to pull in the line, and to their surprise, a large striped bass was stuck on the tip of the hook. Right away, the students were smitten by their newfound “friend” and quickly named him Fogarty, in honor of their school. Amid the students’ excitement, Captain Dan could see that Fogarty was injured and thought, perhaps, Adam Kovarsky, manager and aquarist at

Save The Bay’s Exploration Center and Aquarium in Newport, might be able to save him. By a stroke of luck, Kovarsky had just installed a new 1500-gallon tank at the Exploration Center and Aquarium and it might be the perfect place for Fogarty to recover. So away they all went with Fogarty the Striped Bass, in search of a new home, improved health, and a way to show visitors one of the important fish of Narragansett Bay.

Also known as a striper, rockfish, and rock bass, the striped bass is the Rhode Island state fish and a prized migratory game fish in the Northeast for its strength, speed, beauty and hunting abilities. Striped bass are anadromous fish, undertaking a long migration southward along the Atlantic coast into the fresh waters of the Chesapeake Bay and Hudson River to spawn and then returning northward – into Narragansett Bay – in the warm summer months. In many ways, it’s one of Narragansett Bay’s top predators, feeding on everything from anchovies and eels, to herring and menhaden, to crustaceans and squid, and in doing so, it is integral to keeping balance in the ecosystem. Unfortunately, after rebounding from a critical decline in the 1970s, stocks of striped bass have been decreasing again since about 2006. The cause? A combination of overfishing, dwindling populations of prey fish for them to feed on, and effects of climate change and disease.

Fogarty, though, has found a safe haven at the Exploration Center and Aquarium. Upon arrival there, he was immediately the largest fish species at the Center and quickly became a kind of celebrity to visitors thanks to his size and survival tale. Kovarsky repaired an infection of his swim bladder, which he needs to stay level in the water. And he quickly began to eat and build strength and grow. At first a little shy, he’s now pretty comfortable in his new home.

“He’s very laid back. He’s gotten a lot bigger since we rescued him, and he just loves hanging around and looking at visitors,” said Kovarsky. He wasn’t sure striper would be able to return to the wild, but Fogarty’s resilience is proving otherwise, and the aquarium manager expects that the big fish will be released back into the wild in the not-too-distant future.

As I peer into his tank, I try to imagine what Fogarty might be thinking as he looks out of his tank, watching visitors go by. Perhaps, “This place is comfortable, yes, and with so many sea robins, scup, and other fish I would normally see in my own natural habitat. The water is cold and fresh, and has a familiar taste, as though it was drawn right from the Bay. I’m a big fish here, literally. My visitors love me, and love to peek out and see their smiles of delight. I don’t know how long I’ll be here, but I’m healing, regaining my strength, and I’ll be the silver dart beneath the waters once again.”