A fisherman's sea changes


Where small estuaries reach out like graceful fingers to meet the sea sits a quiet and peaceful place.

It is called Indian River, and it's hard by the Delaware State Seashore Park.

I drop in there when I am on vacation. I like meeting people there whose lifestyles are very different from mine -- it takes me away from myself and my world.

Or maybe I just love the spot for its tranquillity and watery beauty -- it is far from the roaring crowds at the tourist beaches.

This year I met 37-year-old Bill Cooper. He's a commercial fisherman -- tanned, mustached, muscled -- and he loves the Chesapeake Bay.

It's been his world since he was born.

But now his way of life is threatened. Commercial fishing -- he's a gill netter -- is not like it was, and Bill worries a lot about the future; his and the bay's.

He is mad that more isn't being done to preserve fishing rights, especially those of the gill netter's, and that the bay's problems have become embroiled in politics.

But he is also sad, mostly that he may not always be a gill netter. He owns B. C. Seafood, a small enterprise on the edge of the water.

Bill and I sat on a pier in the early morning. Gray scarves of mist drifted over the pilings and boats. It's a place where commercial fishing boats exist beside slick recreational power boats and rowboats whose lone occupants are up early to catch their dinner. The smell of diesel fuel mingles with the fish from the night's catch being cleaned on a long table.

"I learned to clean a fish at 5 years old . . . I've been struck by lightning on my boat, knocked silly, and it shattered my teeth -- I guess the silver fillings attract the lightning. But I'm still here," Bill says.

The recession hasn't hit his small business too bad, he says. "People always have to eat. . . . See, this isn't a job to me, it's a lifestyle. And you have to love it. I do.

"I work an 18-hour day, and I fish all night. My wife and I have two boys, but I can tell you right now I'm not sure I want my kids doing this kind of job, it's too hard. Don't get me wrong, I never wanted to be rich."

When do you sleep? I ask.

"In December," he says, putting some fish on ice for the customers who will arrive soon.

Bill has never fought commuting traffic, never punched a time clock, although he does some construction work in the winter months.

But people and pollution have changed the commercial fisherman'slife.

Bill explains over the screech of sea gulls:

"As a gill netter there are just fewer fish. The bay is being over-fished. Part of the trouble is the herbicides that farmers use that run into the water killing off the fish. Some fish are smart enough to go elsewhere.

"The recreational fishing takes away our fish," he adds. "These people throw their garbage into the bay from their boats, you know. And the petroleum products run into the water."

Bill believes the federal government needs to take more responsibility.

"We want people with real hands-on knowledge to come here and look. The state has limited our catches, our equipment and the time we can fish. Inside the three-mile limit the state controls us.

"I've watched life die around the bay for the past few years," he says, "and I want to see my grandchildren get to know the bay as I have."

Will Bill retire from commercial fishing?

"Well, if the bay gets any more crowded, we might go to the mountains, find an isolated spot and sell Christmas trees."

And then he says he's kidding.

We look over the side of the pier as a school of fish swim by.

"They make good eating; they are little spot fish," Bill says, and his face lights up.

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