By Doreen Leggett
Nick Sanchez had just hopped out of the pool at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, where he had spent several hours getting in and out of a survival suit and enclosed raft as fast as possible, participating in a number of safety drills.
Now in his 30s, Sanchez had been a lifeguard in Florida, bounced around other places, but was now following his wife’s dream and had landed on Cape Cod.
Athletic, even-keeled, he wanted to get into commercial fishing. He appreciates hard work and loves the ocean, but had no idea how to get a job on a fishing vessel.
“Where was I going to go to find that job, the dock?” he asked rhetorically.
His wife saw an announcement about a new fishermen’s training program the Fishermen’s Alliance was launching. Sanchez signed up right away.
Sanchez and several others attended nearly 40 hours over the course of two weeks in March and met a half dozen Cape captains who are dependent on good crew to run a successful business.
“Crewmembers, much like their captains, come from all walks of life. Those experiences make this industry vibrant, and that’s one reason it’s so important to connect new people with potential fishing careers. When we designed this course, we knew that although so much of fishing is learned on the job, there are a few critical aspects that can and should be taught to people as soon as possible,” said Amanda Cousart, policy analyst at the Fishermen’s Alliance.
Fishermen across the country have been lamenting the loss of the next generation of fishermen. The Fishermen’s Alliance was able to launch the program with funding in the Massachusetts state budget and a grant from National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. That meant the $1,400 program – which graduated attendees with several certifications – was free.
“The most valuable thing is the crew,” said Captain Greg Connors, who taught one of the classes.
Connors, along with Captain Nick Muto, went over the basics of gillnetting. Other instructors dove deep into scalloping, lobstering, hook fishing and tuna fishing; the charter boat industry was also represented.
Gillnets have been described as looking like chain link fences in the water, but the class learned that the reality (and the gillnets) are more complex.
For example, the net used to catch dogfish has panels, a weighted sink line, and another floating line at the top. A bridle attaches one of the net panels to anchor. The net has six-and-a-half-inch mesh and is a much lighter weave than what is used to bring up bulbous, weighty monkfish, which has a 10-inch mesh.
“It’s amazing how selective they are,” said Connors. Depending on the net, what is caught “looks like (it comes from) an entirely different part of the ocean.”
Dogfish is a fast fishery; Connors said within 10 minutes nets that are close to a mile long, in 300-foot sections, will fill up with 6,000 pounds of dogfish.
Another section of the course went over science and the intricate ways fisheries are managed. For example, groundfish – such as cod – sometimes are caught with dogfish but are managed very differently. Codfish are under a quota system; unless fishermen have enough fishing history to have been granted sufficient quota, they need to buy or lease it, which makes fishing for cod a more expensive proposition.
That, along with scarcity, has led many local fishermen to concentrate on dogs and skates, which have daily catch limits but no individual quota.
In addition to setting gear so they don’t, for example, play out too much line and pop the anchor, gillnet fishermen also must understand the regulatory framework that requires gear to be set in specific fashion, with protections so they break at five different points if they come in contact with a marine mammal.
But arcane regulations, and the nuances of how and where to catch the fish you want, are more the captain’s purview.
Connors and Muto usually have a crew of three and the starting spot is usually in the net box.
That’s where Graham Larson, a new member of Muto’s crew who was taking the course at his captain’s suggestion, had spent his first two fishing trips.
“That’s where most of us started,” said Muto.
Larson has to “flake” or spread the nets, which are coming over a bar, so the weighted net is separated from the floating line. Besides getting tangled up, the lighter line will chafe and break if it is on the bottom, and even with properly set gear the captain is figuring on $200 to $300 a day to replace nets.
Flaking, as well as getting the fish out of the net with minimal damage, involves repetitive hand motions and requires efficiency. Same with cutting. There are half-a-dozen ways to cut the wings off skates, but with a limit of 4100 pounds of wings a day you have to do it quickly.
Captain Eric Hesse works in a completely different fishery. He uses hooks, strung out on a long line, to target haddock. Hesse said haddock go to the hook well, but they move around in the water a lot more than cod so you have to find them.
“You can go and have a big day, have a turnaround, and the next day they are gone,” he explained to the class. “It is a very expensive way to fish.”
He said 4,000 to 6,000 hooks are baited; once they are out you can’t reset. The gear is closely tended and fish are alive when they come up.
“The fish are pristine; the high end markets like that. Thankfully we have a good relationship with Whole Foods, thanks to the Fishermen’s Alliance,” Hesse said.
Winter is their peak season for haddock (in the summer he goes tuna fishing with a harpoon) so he was only staying at the training for half a day to get back on the water. What he wanted to emphasize before he left was his expectations of a crew member:
Reliability, communication skills and responsibility.
“If you aren’t there I can’t go,” Hesse said. “It’s like the prom date that never showed up. Then you have to be a heads-up person and have situational awareness.”
Hesse said motivation and attitude were also key. For most fisheries, crew can make $250 to $900 a day. If the boat grosses more, so does the crew because they are on shares of the total take.
Sanchez was particularly interested in Hesse’s career: “He explained it as hunting more than harvesting, and it’s an older craft. I like the idea of that.”
Classmate Tony Day, who has already fished and shellfished, was more interested in the lobster fishery, which Muto and Captain Rob Martin talked about.
Muto says he knows what his crew is doing and where they are on the boat without turning around. He doesn’t want to be checking on them or giving orders.
“The worst thing is a captain having to say what to do every day,” Muto said.
“On the average day we only speak to make fun of each other,” Connors joked.
Muto said being on the back of the boat, in the thick of it, isn’t the best place for training, which is why the class is important. The depth and breadth of the material is much more than he can teach onboard. The course also delved into knot tying and navigation as well as other practical skills.
Muto thought Larson, even though he already has a spot on the boat, would benefit from the class.
“I see him as someone that can jump in with both feet,” Muto said, adding with a laugh that he’s looking for someone who will take his job one day.
Larson was on Muto’s boat the day after the class ended, in the wheelhouse with Muto looking at the electronics, and Muto said the difference was clear:
“He’s already started to speak my language.”