Fishing for Furniture Off Dauphin Island

In part two of his boat trip through the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, Noah Adams visits Dauphin Island, where fishermen and local residents are trying to rebuild their economy.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

And NPR's Noah Adams is spending this week traveling the Intracoastal Waterway from Florida to New Orleans. He's there to find out how the area is doing recovering from Hurricane Katrina. Today, Noah reports from Dauphin Island in Alabama. Dauphin Island is narrow and seven miles long. It's a low, sandy barrier between the mainland and the Gulf of Mexico. Damage there was extensive and, as Noah reports, Katrina disrupted the normal rhythms of commercial fishing.

NOAH ADAMS reporting:

This story takes place right in this little harbor and involves a businessman, two fishermen and a visiting scientist. We'll start with Wayne Howell, who was once a police chief and likes that title. Chief owns a boat that catches bait, but lately he's been working for a FEMA subcontractor clearing debris out of the nearby waters. He calls it `fishing for furniture.'

Mr. WAYNE HOWELL (Former Police Chief): It was just like deep-sea fishing. And happiness is to catch a king-size mattress at 6:00 in the morning that only weighs about 3,000 pounds when you try to pull it up.

ADAMS: On to his boat came what was blown and washed away by Katrina: TV sets, a Bowflex exercise machine, a doghouse, a picket fence. He'd send the nets down, run the boat along and wait.

Mr. HOWELL: You catch something, and you don't know what it is till it comes up on the surface. Sometimes it was great. Sometimes you said, `Oh, my God, it's heavy.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

ADAMS: Michael Wayne Lee has also been doing debris work, but today, he's off and on a small boat getting set to leave the dock. His family on board includes his son, Dylan(ph), playing with a squeaky toy shark. Michael Wayne Lee usually runs a shrimp boat.

Mr. MICHAEL WAYNE LEE (Shrimp Boat Operator): Yeah, shrimping ain't too good in the bays right now. They all pretty well moved out in the Gulf. See, they nest up in the marsh. And when the hurricane come, it got--that tide gets high. When it goes out, it pulls all the shrimp out with it, you know, and it pulls them out in the Gulf. So that messes us up pretty much when it does that.

DYLAN: (Singing) La, la, la. Bye-bye!

(Soundbite of boat motor)

ADAMS: At sunset, a large, white research vessel comes gliding to the dock. Andy Lydiker(ph) is on board. His company's based in Memphis; it's called Pan-American Consultants. They have a more scientific way to see what's deep in the water.

Mr. ANDY LYDIKER (Pan-American Consultants): There's a lot of looking at a computer screen in this job.

ADAMS: Computer screens all around, and they monitor underwater, remote-sensing devices, equipment that in this case glides through the water on top of natural gas pipelines looking for trouble. Andy Lydiker is a marine archaeologist.

Mr. LYDIKER: We run this kind of stuff as part of our jobs. But every now and then there'll be a shipwreck of some kind or perhaps a prehistoric Indian site, and that's where it gets fun. And something like that will come around about once a year, once every two years. That's the funnest part. But even something like this is fun because you get on a boat with a bunch of cool guys and you kind of have a good time for a while.

ADAMS: So far checking the gas pipelines, they haven't found any damage from Hurricane Katrina. And soon the team will be off to other projects.

(Soundbite of banging)

ADAMS: Troy Cornelius, at his company on the dock about 30 feet away, is here to stay, if he can.

(Soundbite of items being moved)

Mr. TROY CORNELIUS (Fish Bones): Caviar. Caviar. All this roe goes to Japan.

ADAMS: Working at a fish table, he slices open the bellies of mullets and pulls out the yellow and white sacks of roe, which he'll sell to a broker. Eventually, the roe goes to market in Japan.

Mr. CORNELIUS: It used to be big money, and now it's too many brokers in between here and Japan.

ADAMS: Troy Cornelius opened his processing plant back in May. He called it Fish Bones. Then, the hurricane. He's just reopened, and the fish are there, but few boats are leaving the dock. Even without the hurricane, the fish market was down and diesel prices way up.

(Soundbite of gull)

ADAMS: He shows me a large, decrepit boat outside that may soon be under water.

Mr. CORNELIUS: Just like right now, the ...(unintelligible) tied up out there been sinking every day. I've been pumping him out, pumping him out. People can't keep their boats up anymore. They just don't--they just don't have the money to keep them up. Not fishing, don't have the money to buy the fuel to get out. Can't haul up to replace it, so it's pretty tough.

ADAMS: Fish Bones owner Troy Cornelius at Dauphin Island, Alabama.

Our next report takes us on west to the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Noah Adams, NPR News, on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.

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