In Search of the Hidden Cooper River

The Cooper River, a 16-mile tributary of the Delaware River in southwestern New Jersey, was once heavily polluted and nearly half sewage. Today, thanks to the Clean Water Act and many efforts from local organizations, this river is a thriving waterway perfect for local recreation — fishing, birdwatching, rowing, kayaking and canoeing — hidden in plain sight. 

Although it passes along roadways and through many different townships within New Jersey, the route of the river’s particular upstream pathway and bends, its unique flora and fauna — but most importantly, the source of its water — all have been relatively unacknowledged over the past hundred years due to its history of pollution. That is, until Don Baugh, president and founder of Upstream Alliance, went in search of answers. 

Students on the expedition investigating fish with Academy scientist Colin Rohrback. Dave Harp/Chesapeake Photos

“The search was all about opening up the river and showing that it can have recreational value for all, including environmental justice communities in historically impoverished cities like Camden, New Jersey,” Baugh says in an interview with American River. “We hope that the Cooper River becomes accessible for all those in Camden County, and that it enriches their lives.” 

Leading an expedition through the entire length of the Cooper River with a film crew, a National Geographic photographer, several local students and even Academy scientists from our Fisheries Section, Baugh sought to capture its environmental nuances and find ways to bring much-deserved attention back to this waterway.  

“People are often surprised, especially in highly developed areas, as to the diversity of fish and other aquatic life living in their streams,” says Dave Keller, senior scientist at the Academy’s Fisheries Section. “I really appreciated the opportunity to survey the Cooper River and discuss our findings with the expedition participants. They were very enthusiastic about the fish and crayfish that we found.” 

Students on the expedition investigating fish with Academy scientist Dave Keller. Dave Harp/Chesapeake Photos

Students and scientists alike were truly surprised to find unexpected species of birds and fish, as well as crystal-clear water, when they traveled upstream for the expedition. Baugh hopes that revealing the secrets of this overlooked river through float parties and upcoming film screenings will help everyone better understand the important role clean and well-cared-for water plays in our lives. 

Keller reflects, “More attention is needed on the Cooper River and other urban waters so we can continue to improve water quality, restore fish and wildlife communities and increase public access. It’s fantastic that Upstream Alliance, Camden County and other project partners are shining a spotlight on the Cooper River and all that it has to offer.” 

The film of this expedition, Search for the Cooper — A River Hidden in Plain View, will be shown for free to the public at the Camden County Boathouse on October 17, from 6-7:30 p.m. RSVP required.

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