By Doreen Leggett
Mario Stark spends his summers helping run his uncle’s boat, the Hindsight, out of Rock Harbor in Orleans.
But now he is back at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, and when he saw a booth the Fishermen’s Alliance had set up at the Academy’s bi-annual career fair he immediately walked over.
George Maynard, research coordinator at the Fishermen’s Alliance, started to explain about a new crew training program the non-profit is launching.
Stark smiled, having heard from his uncle how hard it is to find good crew — with him back at school, even harder.
That lament is the main reason a group of captains approached the Fishermen’s Alliance and asked if staff could set up a training program that teaches aspiring crewmen about what to expect on the back of a fishing boat.
The six-week course is funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation with another $40,000 set aside in the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries budget. It is loosely modeled on a federal proposal known as the Young Fishermen’s Development Act, intended to remove some of the barriers to entry young fishermen across the country face. Cape fishermen have been to Washington D.C. in support of the act, which has garnered bipartisan support but has not yet passed.
Captains on the Cape see a deep need for this program because it is not only difficult to find crew, it is difficult for people who want to be a captain someday to make the right connections. Most don’t realize there is a career path many would envy on the peninsula.
“This opens the door to the industry which is really hard to open otherwise,” said Eric Hesse of Barnstable, a long-time captain who fishes for both tuna and groundfish.
He is one of several captains who have offered to help teach. Hesse has also advocated for more time for students to interact with captains because times have changed since a generation ago, when people on Cape knew someone in the industry.
The industry itself has changed as well.
Many fishermen are conducting a lot more science and are well versed in policy and fisheries management. With a changing regulatory landscape and the need for science to back up policy, it’s imperative for fishermen to have a wide base of knowledge.
That’s in addition to safely handling gear at sea, the importance of wheel watches, navigation and the basics of hydraulics and diesel engines. Crews also have to know how to change gear – for instance harpooning tuna versus hooking for cod.
Several students at the career fair were aware of changes in the fisheries, and intrigued.
Cadet Jack Rose said his uncle loved his job as a federal fisheries observer. Observers go out on fishing boats to collect information on what fish are being caught and where. Rose, a senior, is angling toward a career in the federal Environmental Protection Agency conducting criminal investigations, but was interested in commercial fishing just the same.
Aaron Diauto had never considered a career in commercial fishing, but “who hasn’t grown up wanting to be a fishermen?” he asked. “I love being on the water.”
Massachusetts is behind Rhode Island when it comes to training programs. Some students were surprised the Commonwealth didn’t already have one in place.
One student said his father was a commercial fishermen out of Rhode Island’s Point Judith and his friends have taken courses, knowing it would help their careers.
Hesse hopes this pilot can be expanded with a focus on getting from the back to the front of the boat. With quotas (different catch limits on different fish, all with different prices), diversification (fishing different species each season) and marketing (traceability, farmers markets), there is a lot to learn to be able to run a successful business.
Rear Admiral Francis McDonald, president of the Academy, thought the vendors gathered earlier this month had come to the right spot.
“This is an amazing institution,” he said, “and you have the chance to recruit some of the best talent in this country.”
George Maynard from the Fishermen’s Alliance seconded that sentiment.
“I’m consistently impressed with the professionalism and enthusiasm of most of the cadets I interact with at MMA,” he said. “These young people have a passion for working on the water and are curious about exploring different ways to make that goal a reality. A few of them have already sent follow up emails, and I look forward to being in touch with them more as we send out applications for this course.”