By Doreen Leggett
Just about four years ago, when Sam Linnell was 22, he came in from monkfishing with his dad just after midnight, and a few hours later was on the way to the airport for an early morning flight to Washington, D.C.
Linnell and his dad, Tim, are two of more than 50 fishermen, many from the Cape, who have taken time off over the years to ask legislators to support the Young Fishermen’s Development Act, the first federal program proposed to help train, educate, and assist the next generation of commercial fishermen.
“Whoever we talked to seemed super for it and seemed to respect the fishing life, what it meant, how important it is and how the whole nation is founded on it,” Linnell remembered.
Still, it took until this year for bipartisan support to coalesce around a bill that passed both branches of Congress. President Trump signed the legislation in early January, enshrining a five-year effort spearheaded by the Fishing Communities Coalition, a national group co-founded by the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance.
“One of the first priorities we identified as a group was the need to create more resources to train, support and empower the next generation of fishermen,” said Ben Martens of Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, another co-founder. “We couldn’t be prouder of this effort and the team who came together to make this possible.”
Linnell, now 26, has bought his own boat, and calls the news “very wonderful.” When he travelled to Washington and visited dozens of legislative offices, he emphasized that learning the technical aspects of the industry, such as navigation and electronics, was vital.
He still goes monkfishing, now on the Great Pumpkin. Sometimes the trips, given long travel time to the grounds, last 40 hours. Linnell has a crew of three, all under 26, and he thinks they would benefit from more technical training. Navigation is key to safety and he worries about the weather and collisions with other boats.
“It would be great if we could have a classroom environment,” he said.
The Young Fishermen’s Development Act, modeled after the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s successful (and much bigger) Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, is designed to provide both classroom and on-the-water instruction, as well as connect up-and-coming fishermen with accomplished captains.
“This Act is crucial to the success of the Cape’s small-boat fleets and the communities that rely on commercial fishing, an industry that helped build the peninsula and is a vital part of the new blue economy,” said John Pappalardo, CEO of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance.
While the initiative was working its way through Congress, the Fishermen’s Alliance launched its own fishermen’s training last March just before the pandemic struck, a small program funded in part from the state budget. Local captains and groups like the U.S. Coast Guard Auxillary taught everything from navigation and safety to gear types.
Captain Nick Muto was one of the instructors. He has been a champion of the act because the industry has gotten so complex over the years. Gone are the days when you just learn on the water.
“When push comes to shove there are still a lot of successful commercial fishing businesses on the water and there is a lot of opportunity for more in the future,” Muto said. This legislation will help realize those opportunities, Muto added.
Last year’s program had four graduates. The federal act could provide up to $200,000 for local and regional training and education in sustainable and accountable fishing practices, marine stewardship, successful business practices, and technical initiatives that address the needs of beginning fishermen. The funding would be awarded through a competitive grants program open to state, tribal, local, or regionally-based networks or partnerships.
Ken Baughman, a Falmouth fisherman who took the course, said the industry is tough to break into; it’s hard to imagine succeeding in a career on the water without help.
“It’s virtually impossible. You really have to come in as an apprentice,” he said.
In several regions, commercial fisheries have seen an increase by 10 years or more in the average participant’s age over the previous generation of fishermen, and rural communities have lost 30 percent of local permit holders.
The Fishing Communities Coalition, encompassing about a dozen small-boat, community fishing groups from Maine to Alaska, began advocating for legislation to turn the tide in 2015.
A bill was first filed in 2017, and has been doggedly supported by Massachusetts Senators Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren as well as Representatives Seth Moulton and William Keating.
“Our legislation will help ensure that our fishing industry continues to attract and grow future generations of young fishermen,” said Senator Markey in a statement that also thanked his Alaskan colleagues, also strong supporters and Republicans. “More young men and women will be pushing off the dock into new careers and fully participating in the economy of their communities.”
Stephanie Sykes was one of several Cape fishermen who traveled to the nation’s capital. After missing days of fishing to lobby for the act, it is gratifying to see it passed, she said.
“This is a huge achievement for small-boat fleets across the country,” she added. “It is uplifting to see the industry receive the legislative support for our young fishermen training programs that will help the commercial fishing industry thrive.”
Sykes will head up training programs at the Fishermen’s Alliance when they restart after the pandemic.
Pappalardo said the act “takes on added importance as the pandemic, although painful in so many ways, has reintroduced many to delicious local seafood, and to the admirable and tenacious people who catch it – igniting interest in a worthy career.”