By Doreen Leggett
Imagine being a new crew member on a commercial fishing vessel.
The sea seems empty at 2 a.m., miles from shore, when the captain asks you to take watch while he grabs some sleep. After taking the free online Cape Cod Fishermen Training Course, you know you need to make sure you have answers to some important questions:
“What does an approaching vessel look like on the radar? What course track line am I following on the chart plotter? How do I adjust course? What is the emergency channel for the radio?”
The new course, developed by Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, is a broad overview of fisheries basics and covers everything from gear types to regulations.
The training was funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) and introduces people to career opportunities available in commercial fishing.
“The Cape’s oldest profession is still viable and open to hardworking, motivated individuals who share a love of the sea and are dedicated to providing sustainable seafood to the world,” the introduction states.
Stephanie Sykes, former program and outreach coordinator at the Fishermen’s Alliance and Chief Operating Officer Melissa Sanderson, built the curriculum, an addition to in-person Fishermen Training launched in 2020.
“Obviously we can’t teach people to fish online,” Sykes said. “But by improving access to real information and footage of commercial fishing as a job, providing information on demand, we bridge the gap between sparked interest and getting out on the water.”
The course takes about two hours, starting with an introduction to local fisheries, and runs down the parts of boats; outriggers, equipment, gaffs, mooring lines, highflyers. There are ungraded tests to make sure you know the difference between a fish box and a net box, for instance.
The development of a training program on Cape Cod began more than five years ago. Then as now, the average age of the fleet is 55 years old, and young professionals can be overwhelmed by the challenges of getting started.
It is not simply enough to be able to catch fish: A fishing professional is a businessperson responsible for marketing their catch, abiding by complex regulatory requirements, and keeping pace with rapid changes occurring on the ocean. Online training touches on fisheries management including how fishing permits are controlled, quota regulations, science and policy.
“It’s easy to romanticize the industry after watching ‘Wicked Tuna’ or ‘Deadliest Catch,’” Sykes said. “Fishermen’s Alliance is providing access to information about the real deal, the gear, the hours, the pay.”
For different fisheries on the Cape, gear varies widely. The course describes each, from work on a dragger to a shellfish farm. Familiarizing the learner with terms is also a component. The course advises keeping your feet out of lines, especially staying out of the “bight” (the loop or eye made by a line). Students learn that “bottom longlining” is synonymous with “tub trawling,” a style of fishing with multiple hooks.
The course touches on how mesh size in gillnets is different, depending on what kind of species is being targeted, but always with a weighted line on the bottom, the net set vertically and a floating line on top. Gillnets, as well as lobster pots, have break-away lines to protect marine mammals from becoming entangled.
There are videos on knot tying – tying a bowline with one hand is essential if injured, or you are using the other hand to hold on to the line or the boat. There also is fish handling, for example how to shuck a scallop or “flake” a gillnet. Flaking, spreading the gillnet back out, must be done quickly and correctly, because if the net goes back in the water with snarls it won’t catch fish.
Many of the videos are culled from an extensive library the Fishermen’s Alliance has amassed over the years. The course also includes videos from Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries that cover shellfishing regulations, for example when harvester tags are required (always) to what information needs to be included and how long they must be kept on file (90 days). Shellfishing is an affordable entry point into the industry; there are 250 aquaculture farms on the Cape.
Although learners receive a certificate for completing the course, in-person training is required for a safety certificate. The course does cover several safety topics, including how to maintain and don a survival suit, and man overboard drills. According to safety figures, the number of boats sinking has declined in the past 20 years, but the number of fishermen lost overboard has stayed the same.
Captain Mike Van Hoose, who went through in-person Fishermen Training in 2022, thinks an on-line course is a valuable addition. He said those interested can focus on sections they are most interested in and do it on their schedule. They can also get some of the information they need without asking at the dock or in a classroom setting.
“It’s hard to ask those questions in person,” he said.
The training, along with a report that details Cape Cod’s training needs and proposed solutions, can be found here.