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Training Programs Help Young People Become Fishermen

For many New England fishermen, learning how to fish is simple. A father or other family member brings a youngster out on the boat from an early age, slowly imbuing in them the skills and knowledge necessary to be successful in the fishery. As the years go by, the knowledge increases — of boat handling and maintenance, safety techniques, obtaining permits and meeting reporting requirements, paying the taxes, and oh yes, catching fish. Eventually, the young person finds him or herself at the wheel of their own vessel, making their own way across the water.

The NEYFA nine-month program emphasizes both fishing skills & safety as well as sound business planning, with the aim of getting participants onto their own boats. NEYFA phot.

But that path is not quite the same these days. Many sons and daughters of fishermen are following their interests into a different career path, often encouraged by their parents who fear for the future of fishing. Others find it difficult to gain entry into specific fisheries or to gain the financing to own their own boat and permit. As a result, the ever-aging New England fishing fleet is facing a generational threat: too few young people coming in to replace those who are aging out.

Several organizations in New England have stepped in to stem the decline of fishermen in the region. They offer a variety of training programs designed to educate the next generation on how to be successful fishermen in a world very different from decades past.

Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance

“We assume that you have never been on a boat,” explained Melissa Sanderson, chief operating officer for the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance (CCCFA) in Chatham, Massachusetts. The organization offers an introductory class all about fishing for those unconnected to the profession.

Before COVID, local captains were reporting challenges in finding crew. So, in 2019 the CCCFA secured a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant to develop an introductory fishing training workshop.

“The course is designed to provide students with the information they need to start their career and be successful,” Sanderson said. To do that, the CCCFA drew on local fishermen, the Coast Guard Auxiliary, and companies connected to the fishing industry to provide content. 

The CCCFA introduces young people to the basics of commercial fishing and helps them find work as crew on Cape Cod boats at the close of the course. D.Hills photo.

“We held our first training session in March of 2020. And then COVID shut it all down,” Sanderson said. Because of COVID the training curriculum was quickly put online. A second training session was held in-person as the pandemic ebbed, along with outreach to the local technical high school. Between five to 14 students attended each training. The sessions varied from four back-to-back full days to a series of partial days over four weekends. “Most really wanted to become fishermen, but we have had a couple of folks who signed up just because they were curious,” she laughed.

To further expand the training curriculum, CCCFA secured a grant from NOAA Sea Grant to develop a regional training framework, not just for new crew but also to help existing crew advance. In 2022, CCCFA held a series of listening sessions with fishermen and their families to learn what issues were most important to them. “Gentrification in the coastal communities turned out to be number one. The lack of affordable housing for crew,” Sanderson said. “Fishermen were having a hard time finding and retaining crew because of that.”

\As a result of those meetings, the CCCFA decided the best route to address the problem would be to introduce those already living on the Cape to fishing careers. CCCFA conducted workshops at Cape Cod Regional Technical High School to judge the interest in fishing as a profession and is now hoping to set up a regular course at the high school to provide crew training.

“The curriculum could be integrated into local high schools, but we’re also working towards having the state’s Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development support an apprenticeship program like Rhode Island has,” she explained.

In the meantime, CCCFA is hosting another three-day session this month. “We are outsourcing the teaching to certified trainers from the Commercial Fisheries Center of Rhode Island,” Sanderson said. Students will learn basic skills, for example, how to correctly haul a lobster trap or where to stand on deck when a scallop dredge or otter trawl is being hauled back. They learn about the many fisheries taking place on Cape Cod, how to tie specific knots, and get extensive hands-on lessons in maritime safety and survival, including how to don a survival suit and get into a life raft.

CCCFA also brings together the students and established captains in need of crew for after-class gatherings in order to connect the students with the larger fishing community. “Several students are now crew on local boats. Two jumped right in and started in lobstering and rod-and-reel fishing on their own boats,” Sanderson said.

“It’s something the fishing community needs. Fishermen were looking around and saying, ‘Who will I hire as crew?’ or ‘Who will I sell my business to?’ We are doing this for the future of fishing,” she said.

New England Young Fishermen’s Alliance

In New Hampshire, the New England Young Fishermen’s Alliance (NEYFA) is moving full steam ahead on its Deckhand to Captain training program. The Alliance, headed by Andrea Tomlinson, arose from a series of focus groups with southern Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts commercial fishermen organized by New Hampshire Community Seafood, New Hampshire Food Alliance, and New Hampshire Sea Grant. Among the many issues identified by participants, the fact that fishermen were retiring from the profession while fewer and fewer young people were joining it stood out, according to Tomlinson. “Something had to be done,” she said.

At the time, Tomlinson was director of New Hampshire Community Seafood. In collaboration with Yankee Fisherman’s Coop and the Food Alliance, she successfully applied for a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to support training the next generation of fishermen. With those funds, they set about developing NEYFA as a nonprofit and creating a nine-month curriculum designed to get new fishermen into a boat and fishing.

Additional funds, from private foundations and public sources, allowed the program to include southern Maine participants and to coordinate with other regional training programs. NEFYA was created in September 2022, with Tomlinson at the helm.

“The Deckhand to Captain program goes for nine months and requires 40 hours of class time from April to December. It’s broken up into six-week modules.”

The first module introduces students to business management. Instructors include local bank lenders, financial planners, insurance brokers, and others. A business advisor from the local regional economic development commission is assigned to help each student create a personal financial profile, business plan, and budget for a future fishing business. The advisor acts as a mentor for the student throughout the program and afterward, an added benefit for the program participant. “[The advisor] will be a mentor for a full year after the program to help each student get a boat and permit,” Tomlinson said.

In the second training module, students learn about fishing industry regulations, how NMFS works and how to speak in public. “We have speakers from NOAA, NMFS, and from all three states come,” Tomlinson said. “Students learn all about how laws and regulations are created, all the steps.” They also learn about and are encouraged to take part in the Gulf of Maine Research Institute’s Marine Resource Education Program and are required to do 15 hours of collaborative research and/or advocacy work.

A professional public speaking teacher helps the students become comfortable speaking at meetings and other public events. “The public speaking training leads to a transformation in the students,” Tomlinson said enthusiastically. “They learn how to tell a good story well, which is so important. It’s amazing.” Students attend New England Fishery Council meetings and speak during the public comment period.

Module three takes place in the fall and emphasizes marketing fisheries products. “The emphasis is on other options for selling your products, coming up with a diversified marketing plan,” Tomlinson said. “We bring all sorts of people and businesses in to talk.” Representatives from local fishing co-operatives, and marine entrepreneurs introduce the students to the many ways of increasing the value of their products and diversifying income.

When the program closes, students will work with a local fisherman they have chosen as a mentor to begin their fishing career. Each student is eligible for a $5,000 stipend when they have a completed business plan, budget and business narrative and are ready to purchase a boat or permit. Each mentor is eligible for a $2,000 stipend to oversee the student’s business plan.

Commercial Fisheries Center of Rhode Island

The Commercial Fishing Apprenticeship Program (CFAP) is a crew training program designed and offered by the East Farm Commercial Fisheries Center of Rhode Island and in cooperation with the University of Rhode Island, commercial fishermen, and the Point Judith fishing businesses. 

The one-month program begins in late May. Training takes place Monday through Friday for a full eight hours. At the close of the program, apprentices will have a chance to work as crew members on R.I. vessels in a particular fishery. 

CFAP consists of hands-on, classroom-based training sessions and at-sea training. Students will learn seamanship, navigation, basic vessel maintenance, gear design and repair, as well as take part in CPR, first aid, and safety training. The classes teach participants the basics of net mending, knot tying, species identification, welding and cutting, and diesel engine mechanics, plus fisheries science, fisheries management and regulations, licensing pathways, and fishing as a business.

The students also go out on fishing vessels for three days to experience different types of fishing and gear types. Local fisheries include everything from conch fishing to offshore groundfishing. Training locations are both Point Judith and Kingston, Rhode Island.

The program is funded through Real Jobs Rhode Island, a state workforce development initiative begun in 2015, one of whose goals is “creating pipelines of talent for the future.” The funding allows CFAP to provide each student a $25 stipend for lunch each day, all fishing gear, such as boots and foul-weather clothing, and all books and course materials. At the end of the program, each student will receive a $1,500 stipend and help getting hired on a vessel.


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