James “Jim” Price, a citizen scientist who sounded the alarm for nearly four decades on the health of striped bass and menhaden, died peacefully at his home on Dec. 18. He was 73 and had been battling prostate cancer for seven years.
Born in Easton into a family of fishermen, Price grew up in the town of Choptank, in Caroline County, MD, and later settled near Oxford. After working in a state highway agency laboratory for 16 years, he opened a jewelry business, Delmarva Jewelers, which he operated for 30 years.
In the early 1980s, Price founded the Chesapeake Bay Ecological Foundation to study what he believed was a severe decline in the populations and relative health of striped bass, also known as rockfish or stripers, many of which spawn in the Bay, then migrate to coastal waters. Price’s effort to raise concern about rockfish helped to push for Maryland’s catch moratorium, which lasted from 1985 to 1990. The five-year hiatus is credited with helping the species rebound.
But the work wasn’t done,
“He was tenacious and principled,” said Candy Thomson, the former outdoors writer for the Baltimore Sun, who got to know Price over a decade of covering fishing issues. “He deserved more credit than he got.”
But Price is perhaps best known for his commitment to monitoring stripers’ health. He would take fish he caught or bought, then document their stomachs’ contents. He examined more than 15,000 striped bass stomachs over the years, posting his research on his foundation’s website. He began raising concerns in the late 1990s about whether rockfish were finding enough to eat.
Often, he tried to get the attention of local newspaper reporters and fisheries staff at state agencies. Sometimes, scientists and editors would dismiss Price’s work because he didn’t have an advanced degree and wasn’t published in an established journal.
“It is unfortunate that some in my profession could not appreciate knowledge accumulated over a lifetime of observation and serious thought,” said Jim Uphoff, a Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist who became close friends with Price. “That is their loss. I gained so much from the many conversations with him over the decades, and they helped me become a better biologist.” Uphoff made the statement in a eulogy he delivered at Price’s Dec. 22 memorial service at St. Marks United Methodist Church in Easton.
In recent years, Price and a cohort of committed fishermen pushed the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which manages coastal fish stocks, to reduce the number of menhaden that commercial fishermen could catch so the striped bass would have enough food.
Price was also a longtime member of both the Coastal Conservation Association Maryland and the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishing Association.
“He was a whistleblower,” said Tony Friedrich, the former executive director of the CCA, which honored Price with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012 for his striped bass and menhaden work. Department of Natural Resources officials also presented him with a certificate for his achievements.
“There was a smoking gun. Jim was noticing the fish were getting skinnier, Friedrich said. “You weren’t allowed to say it out loud, because there was ‘no science.’ Jim said it out loud, and he said what many other people believed…he zeroed in on the one thing that would make a difference — the menhaden — and he never stopped. Any man would be happy to see the same qualities in their friends or family.”
In late 2012, after the commission’s scientific advisers warned that the coastal menhaden population was at historic lows and had been overfished for decades, the interstate panel finally voted to reduce the allowable coastal harvest by 20 percent.
At another meeting last year, though, the commission allowed a 6.5 percent increase in that cap. The panel acted on new data and modeling by its scientific advisers, which reversed the earlier findings and concluded that the coastal menhaden stocks had not, in fact, been overfished, and that they could withstand larger harvests.
Regardless of whether menhaden were officially deemed overfished, Price maintained that his data showed that there were still too few small menhaden to nourish the Bay’s striped bass population. As recently as October, he warned the commission that a “predator/prey imbalance may be undercutting striped bass management goals.” Either the number of small 1– and 2-year-old menhaden needed to be increased, he said, or managers should allow striped bass in the Bay to be caught at smaller sizes, thereby reducing the number of large — and hungrier — fish.
The commission has agreed that the ecosystem role of menhaden should be considered — but has yet to decide how to factor it into catch limits.
Burial was private. Price is survived by his wife, Henrietta; his brother, Randy Price, of Choptank; three step-children, and six step-grandchildren.