It was the fall of 1984 and striped bass were in trouble. Along the East Coast, states were beginning to take action to stem the decline. Sunday’s Boston Globe had just announced Maryland’s prohibition of bass fishing. “Meanwhile, the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby pushes on,” the story said.

Founded in 1945, the venerable derby had been drawn into the spotlight of a national clash over conservation of the stripers. It was a battle that was fought in full-page advertisements in the Gazette and Sunday columns in the Globe. It was fought with bumper stickers, petitions, falsified science and threats of violence.

Striped bass had become the symbol of what was wrong with overfishing. And the 110 stripers caught in the previous year’s derby had become a symbol of the final frontier to save the threatened species. But for the derby committee, the new morality of conservation fishing was still a vague image on the horizon. Committee members were hesitant to depart from the old ways, plagued by the fear of losing the institution many had worked years to build. In a split vote, they decided to keep bass in the derby.

The old guard of bass fishermen had straddled the line up until that point, West Tisbury fisherman Kib Bramhall recalled in an interview at his home this week. He had come of age in a time when the stocks seemed endless and fishermen filled the beds of their trucks to the brim. They were the shore version of commercial draggers and trap net fishermen. Mr. Bramhall keeps his wooden club, still plastered with the dulled shimmer of fish scales, as a vestige of the era.

Stripers were taken out of the derby from 1985 to 1993. — Gazette archives

“We had been brought up to feel there was no end to [the fish]. The resource was infinite, and you couldn’t detract from it,” he said. “Gradually, it became apparent that way couldn’t hold. There was reluctance to accept it, and understand, until finally you had to.”

The fear of losing striped bass held a near biblical weight in the fall of 1984. It wasn’t just uprooting the tradition of fishing for stripers, but a confrontation with losing a species that had come to define the culture of fishing. Words like exodus, cataclysm and genesis jumped out from yellowed newspaper clippings splayed out on the coffee table in Mr. Bramhall’s fishing shack. He didn’t fish the derby that year.

Then from deep conflict, a new guard began to emerge.

Dick Russell had been fishing on the Vineyard for just over a decade when he felt the call to action. Unable to gain any traction on his home soil, he packed his bag to deliver the message all along the East Coast. He pushed against Congress and corporate interest for a moratorium in Maryland, Rhode Island and New York. And he was successful. Returning to Martha’s Vineyard in the fall of 1984, boots still muddy from his journey south, he found the derby just as rooted in tradition as when he left.

But by the spring of 1985, businesses had begun pulling their sponsorships, joining the ranks of newly outfitted conservationist fishermen in the fight to save the species. In May 1985, in a split 11-9 vote, the derby committee voted to eliminate striped bass from the tournament.

“The time is now. And the time perhaps was last fall at derby time. And maybe the time was many autumns ago. The fish is in deep trouble and there can be no debate about that,” a Gazette editorial declared.

Cooper Gilkes 3rd, a widely respected Edgartown fisherman, was a member of the derby committee that year. He recalled looking up at the taxidermy mount of a striped bass hanging on wooden panels of the rod and gun club as he cast his vote. And he recalled the knot in his stomach when he left the building, unsure of how the dust would settle.

The decision to eliminate striped bass from the derby was soon followed by a statewide moratorium on taking bass. Five years later, stocks were declared to have rebounded, marking the first cohesive success story in restoring an overfished species. In 1993 striped bass were reintroduced to the tournament.

Mr. Gilkes, Mr. Bramhall and Mr. Russell saw the results of their efforts when the ban was lifted and striped bass once again ran in thick schools along the coast of Martha’s Vineyard.

Now the tide has changed again. Mr. Gilkes, who is still on the derby committee and voted last week, said this time there was no knot in his stomach. And Mr. Bramhall said what was done before can be done again.

“I don’t think I’ll see the days again when striped bass are plentiful,” he said. “But I think my grandchildren will.”