Except for “ready” and “done,” “fuckin’” and “shit” are the two most used words on Neptune, a hand-crafted 50-year-old boat that docks at Cape May, NJ. Anthony Mattia, 41, the captain, curses the most often.
That owes to his “dysfunctional personality,” Mattia said. It’s a condition caused by the immense pressure he undergoes.
For many years, Mattia has driven into the empty dark-green ocean, knowing the new day will be a replica of the previous ones he ever passed before: drive to the spot, set the catching pots, light a Pall Mall. Foot on the ground, Mattia brings his crop to his dealer and leaves with several barrels of baits for the next sail.
And he lights the last Pall Mall from the third pack, before finally heading home.
In the 21st century, when people surf the internet and drive cars, fishing, a skill that was once essential for the survival of mankind, has faded into desolation. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of registered individual commercial fishermen has declined by about 40 percent over the past two decades. Their average annual income is approximately $30,000, at around minimum wage.

Anthony Mattia (left) with his family on the boat. Mattia’s fingers are tattooed with his daughters' names, Mira and Isla.

The water ebbs and flows. The people come and go.
Remarked as one of the most physically demanding jobs, fishing also ranks second place in fatality rate, almost 30 times higher than an average 9-5. According to BLS, each year, the approximately 39,000 commercial fishermen lose 44 of their fellows.
As a trade that is friendly to novices — a few days on the crew will make an okay deckhand — the fishing industry has invited some immature minds that treat this job like a gold rush.
For most, they get on the boat and work as deckhands for a few sails. After they leave with the money, only a few has ever come back.
Mattia frequently finds those who have left struggling with addictions and alcoholism. It’s not easy to find people that truly take fishing as their career, he said.
But Frank Wehmüller is different. He does not smoke; he’s not on drugs; he’s not a client of the sex workers. He started as a deckhand and now owns his boat.
“Frankie’s a rare find,” Mattia said.
Three years ago, when he dropped out of college and experimented with different jobs, Wehmüller got an offer to work on a headboat. He loved being afloat.
“It’s freedom,” he said. “I love the water.”

Frank Wehmüller on the boat. He was an apprentice to Mattia and now he owns a smaller boat.

After Mattia drives the boat to the spots that are likely to produce good corps, Wehmüller will drop the catching pots into the ocean. The pots, used to trap shellfish, are divided into groups and tied to a buoy. The crew will be back in four to five days to collect the pots.

If Mattia heard that, he would’ve nodded. Yeah, fishing is what he always likes. It’s the borderless ocean; it’s a 50-year-old boat; it’s the I-am-my-own-boss freedom; it’s …
It’s a lifestyle.
“Of course, these guys (like us) will make good money, but if you average it out – some days you have good days, some days you have real good days, some days you have real bad days,” Mattia said. “It’s not so much we go for the money; we go for a lifestyle. We have freedom.”
Over time, the fishing industry has evolved into what's like a giant family business where everyone knows each other. Anthony Mattia’s father, Paul Mattia, is the diesel guy, and his nephew, Christopher Mattia, is an apprentice learning from him and Wehmüller.

Anthony filling up diesel for his boat Neptune. Behind him are (from right) his father, nephew and neighbor.

Chris Mattia and Wehmüller preparing baits for the next sail. They chop the baits into pieces so taht they will fit in the pots.

But different from other big families who take pride in their legacy and heritage, the fishermen are less sure what they have for the future. Paul wanted Anthony to be an electrician, and Anthony wanted his children to finish the college that he dropped out of some twenty years ago.
Chris also dropped out of college. He now works as a YouTuber, posting videos about NBA2K and Grand Theft Auto for a few hundred, sometimes thousands, views. He wanted to save enough money to buy a car.
When I asked Chris what if fishing turned out to be his lifetime job, he hesitated.

Chris throwing a buoy into the ocean. The crew will be back in four to five days to collect the crop.

“Damn me. Yeah… Never fuckin’ know, you know?” he said.
 “You never know.”
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