NORWALK, Conn. — As the third generation of his family to earn a living from the rich shellfish beds of Long Island Sound, Terry Backer grew up well-versed in the language of the sea.
As spoken by his father and grandfather, it was an ancient language, as timeless and salty as the currents and tides.
In Backer's lifetime, that has changed. New words--petroleum hydrocarbons, bacterial effluvium, polychlorinated biphenyls--have seeped into the fisherman's vocabulary.
"As a child," said the 36-year-old Backer, "I would yell at people not to throw things in the water. I've been hollering at my dad since I was 8 years old for throwing cigarette butts or soda cans overboard. It just struck me that they didn't belong.
"Dad would say, 'You can't compare a soda can to 300 million pounds of sewage.' The hell you can't. It's the exact same philosophy at work."
If a man takes offense at a stray cigarette butt, how does he feel about PCBs in his bluefish? If he finds floating soda cans an affront, how does he cope with petroleum hydrocarbons?
Terry Backer has coped by learning a new language, peppered with such terms as "fax machine," "environmental litigation" and "regulatory process."
The time once spent fishing for oysters and pulling lobster traps is now given to tracking polluters and battling developers. Evenings once devoted to family are taken up with a steady agenda of speaking engagements at civic clubs.
'The Family Farm'
Terry Backer, Long Island Sound fisherman, has become Terry Backer, Long Island Soundkeeper, an officious title for a $400-a-week job that carries no badge, no benefits and no illusions.
"I'm not naive enough to think that anything I do will have any immediate effect. It's a long-term thing. I don't think I can change the world. But I do need to start. We're talking about the family farm."
The "farm" is 1,300 square miles of water rimmed by 570 miles of coastline, home to 5 million people.
"The population is constantly shifting to get closer to the shoreline," said Michael Ludwig, a Connecticut-based ecologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "Easily between 300 and 500 projects a year are proposed for Long Island Sound. Even in this glutted market, it's still the most desirable real estate in the world."
The man who keeps watch has an eighth-grade education, a bad back, a wife, two young sons and a sense of urgency. He also has "hands-on, feet-wet experience, and an intimate knowledge of Long Island Sound," neither of which can be found in a textbook. "Maybe the heart is more what this job needs than the book," Backer said.
Maybe so, agreed the directors of the nonprofit Long Island Soundkeepers Fund, who chose him over college-educated applicants.
"He knows more about the water than most marine biologists we deal with," said Robert F. Kennedy Jr., clinical professor at Pace University School of Law and supervising attorney for the Hudson River Fishermen's Assn.
"Terry knows when there's stuff missing. He has seen species disappear, acres of yield grass, smelt. He can say there used to be blue crabs here but there aren't anymore. He has an institutional memory that goes back three generations."
Unlike many fishermen, who have accepted the sound's decline and taken part-time jobs to supplement their income, "Terry's never accepted it," Kennedy said. "He feels for the resource. He loves it. And he's decided to make a stand and fight for it."
Making a stand often means making enemies. Backer has been called everything from extortionist to ambulance-chaser by elected officials throughout the region.
"He goes into town board meetings where everybody hates him, the wealthiest people in these towns will be screaming at him, and he'll state his arguments and fight with them," Kennedy said.
"Developers hate him because one of the big battles is against shoreline development that requires marinas; marinas require dredging, which Terry opposes. Municipalities hate him because he's sued every municipality from New Haven to New York."
The suits were brought during his tenure as president of the Connecticut Coastal Fishermen's Assn., a group he co-founded to help fishermen deal with regulatory agencies and polluters.
The Soundkeepers Fund was established with proceeds from the settlement of an association lawsuit against Norwalk in 1986, when local oyster beds were closed due to sewage contamination.
Publicity about contaminated shellfish beds "is a double-edged sword," said Stonington fisherman Joe Gilbert. "On the one hand, we need municipal and federal agencies to take note."
On the other hand, he said, such publicity causes sales to drop immediately, even though "pollution in one place doesn't mean contaminated shellfish all up and down the coast."
Nonetheless, Gilbert approves of Backer's work. "Terry's always working to improve the lot of fishermen. He goes to a lot of meetings, he speaks up, and he speaks for a lot of people."