By Amanda Cousart
Stephanie Sykes, 23, went to high school at Tabor Academy, graduated from the University of New Hampshire with honors and a bachelor of science. She grew up on the Cape, came back last year, lives with her mom, has a boyfriend and lots of friends, goes skiing when she can and hits the gym in her free time.
Sykes is also part of a rapidly disappearing demographic, and she knows it. That’s why she was up at 3 a.m. during a snowstorm getting ready to board a flight to Washington, D.C.
The early morning is routine for her. She is a crew member on the F/V Carol Marie and regularly gets up before dawn to steam out of the Chatham Fish Pier and spend 15 hours catching cod, haddock, monkfish, skates and dogfish.
But the nation’s capital is not a place where she spends much time.
“I’m excited, but unsure what to expect: this is all new for me,” she said.
Sykes is a young first generation fisherman, who came into the industry after gaining experience on the research and monitoring side. And the vessel she fishes on is an anomaly: the entire crew is about 30 years younger than the majority of fishermen they see at the dock.
Much of the fleet where she works in Chatham was around when the original Magnuson-Stevens Act (MSA) passed more than 40 years ago, best known locally as the bill that pushed foreign vessels 200 miles offshore but in fact the driving document for fisheries management in the country. When that generation began fishing you found a boat you could crew on, worked hard, and eventually saved up and bought your own boat you could captain.
Those days are all but gone, which is why Sykes spent 36 hours meeting staff from 20 Congressional and committee offices. She was there as part of the Fishing Communities Coalition, a group that represents small fishing communities (and fishermen) throughout the country.
“I think it’s important for commercial fishermen and their interests to be represented in D.C., especially when there is so much representation on the recreational side,” said Sykes. “I was looking forward to sharing personal experiences, shed light on why supporting the Young Fishermen’s Development Act is important, along with opposing certain aspects of other proposed legislation that would hurt the commercial fishing industry.”
Sykes was representing the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance and partnering with fishermen from the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association as well as the Gulf of Mexico Reef Fish Shareholder’s Alliance. The purpose of the visit was two-fold: encourage additional support for the Young Fishermen’s Development Act and educate members about the coalition’s position on the importance of Magnuson-Stevens.
Sykes and other fishermen who took time off to make the trip personalized the issues. They helped make staffers and representatives understand that putting on oilskins and matching wits with the ocean takes a special kind of person.
“It’s definitely a character-building job. You have to be physically strong and mentally tough. Personally, I wouldn’t trade being on the water for anything and love the sense of pride that comes with putting in a hard day’s work,” she said.
Young fishermen today face barriers to entry, and not just investment cost (which can be large). Being a fisherman today requires you to be a sophisticated businessperson, up-to-date on policy, and a marketer as well as a hunter. Yet communities who rely on fishing need young people to pursue the career.
“To maintain a thriving industry, we need to keep young people entering, and retain enough industry members to sustain all of the fisheries on the Cape,” Sykes said. “We need to have a foundation of hardworking people.”
That is why the Young Fishermen’s Development Act was created, similar to legislation that exists for young farmers. It is a grant-based system (from existing funds) that educational institutions, non-profits and others would use to develop training programs, counseling, and mentorship. The bill has broad, bipartisan support and Sykes is optimistic that it will win approval.
“It’s been really enlightening to experience the decision-making process on the Hill, and understand how those decisions directly affect fishermen such as myself. I’m grateful to have met many of the staff who have supported us, and hope we were able to communicate the importance of programs like the Young Fishermen’s Development Act,” she said.
Sykes and other coalition members also discussed bills that could impact the re-authorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Several proposed bills contain troubling provisions that would change how recreational fishermen are managed, remove many tools that regional councils use to work with commercial fleets, and create burdensome administrative requirements for Exempted Fishing Permits. EFPs are used to allow fishermen to participate in creative programs with federal scientists and managers. The goal is to improve science, management, and fishermen’s bottom lines.
One example: Fishermen from Cape Cod and Maine are currently participating in a pilot program (authorized though an EFP) that allows them to fish in otherwise closed areas provided that their catch is recorded with on-board cameras the entire time. The hope is that cameras will yield more accurate data, with less cost and less bother to the crew than human observers.
Equally troubling provisions in the proposed legislation are proposals to eliminate a catch limit in the recreational sector, a clear ceiling for how much fish you can catch, a limit all commercial fishermen must accept. Instead of disregarding recreational catch, which is substantial, regulators should be looking for better ways to account for it — after all, whether a fish is caught by a commercial or recreational fisherman, it is still coming out of the ocean.
After two full days, Sykes headed back to Cape Cod, a place far removed from the capital yet connected in ways she now understands much better. She worked hard to show staff there what their work would mean to people here, to make them understand how carefully crafted bills could have positive impacts.
“Now, I’m ready to get back to fishing,” she said. (Read “A Young Man Carves Out a Life on the Sea” to get a glimpse of Sykes’ fishing life.)
Cousart is the policy analyst for the Fishermen’s Alliance.