By Doreen Leggett
Andrew Cummings has had a successful shellfish farm in Wellfleet for 25 years, with room to grow, and has offered employees a salary of $54,000 to start, a yearly five-percent raise, and profit sharing.
“I can expand my business, but I don’t have the help,” Cummings said.
Cummings is not alone. When Stephanie Sykes, program and outreach coordinator at Fishermen’s Alliance, hears from commercial fishermen and shellfish farmers across the Cape, the inability to find employees is often top of mind.
“People said that having a pool of applicants is just as important as training opportunities,” Sykes said.
So when Fishermen’s Alliance, working with MIT Sea Grant, developed a draft training framework that identified what is needed to initiate workforce development in commercial fishing, recruitment was at the top of the list.
“Recruit, train and retain,” said Sykes. “We don’t want to have just a training program. We want to make sure those who go through the program stay around and we want to make sure there is a future for them in the industry.”
Sykes was speaking at one of two outreach events the Fishermen’s Alliance held with MIT Sea Grant on a draft framework, which covered everything from a Fisheries 101 section to opportunities for growth and advancement. The feedback received will be incorporated into the final framework and sent to the National Sea Grant Office.
“The National Sea Grant Program supported grants to develop regional planning frameworks for conducting ‘Food from the Sea’’ career development programs,” said Rob Vincent, Assistant Director for Advisory Services at MIT Sea Grant. The goal is “to allow Sea Grant Programs, industries and communities to plan for potential upcoming opportunities associated with the Young Fishermen’s Development Act and other training, education, outreach, and technical assistance to the U.S. seafood sector.”
“Young Fishermen’s Training Framework: A Future for Cape Cod Maritime Traditions” is split into components in addition to recruitment. As each fishery requires different skillsets, and may appeal to different people, the framework also introduced the variety of gear types and fisheries available on the Cape.
“Many people are only familiar with a small portion of local fisheries, such as lobstering, but training should reflect the diversity of local and regional fleets. It is important to establish a baseline knowledge of all available local fisheries in which participants could work,” Sykes said.
Another vital component is safety training.
“That’s non-negotiable,” Sykes said. “Everyone needs to know how to put on a survival suit, where to stand to be safe on deck, and how to keep watch.
“It’s ok to step on a boat and not know how to tie all your knots,” she added.
A common theme among dozens of captains and crew was that attendees should be informed of realistic expectations.
“A lot of jobs you can google to find information, but when it comes to what to expect as a commercial fisherman, a lot of this you can’t find,” Sykes said.
“There is a misunderstanding of what is required,” Cummings agreed. “Like in small-boat fishing, you can’t have an ‘eight (hours) and skate’ mentality, and you can’t show up when you feel like it.
“On a shellfish farm there are tides.”
Rich Wood of the Cape Cod Charter Boat Association said fishing for one day is one thing, but a week or two of getting home at six and shoving off at 3 a.m. is another entirely.
Sykes said many think going on fishing trips would make a huge difference.
The Fishermen’s Alliance has run two training programs, but the challenge is getting people offshore due to insurance costs. So boat tours have been done at the dock. It’s not ideal, but attendees get to see how gear operates without actually fishing.
Boat experience is so important to captains that Sykes said several Fishermen’s Alliance members have volunteered to take trainees on their first commercial fishing trips upon completion of the program.
“They are saying, ‘Please send them on my boat,’” she said. “Experienced captains value this, this is something that is not able to be captured in a classroom.”
Dan Orchard, who leads the safety training division of Fishing Partnership, attended a stakeholder session and emphasized that at-sea training is essential and related insurance costs must be covered by funding.
Funding was a big question mark; most thought the course should be offered free.
When Sykes researched other programs across the country, length and scope varied. For instance, a program out of Rhode Island only takes current crew members and is several weeks long. If someone is jumping onto a boat out of New Bedford, offshore for two weeks, more depth might be needed. Crew on Cape boats, which return to port after a day or two, may require less intensive training.
Wood also had suggestions for recruitment.
He advised looking to charter boats; every charter boat captain has at least one mate who loves fishing. Fishermen’s Alliance has also conducted workshops with the marine services shop at Cape Cod Regional Technical High School.
Wood thought training should start with the strongest component – captains talking about their successful careers. If some highliners talk about how they work hard but make good money and have a lot of time to have fun, the industry looks that much more attractive.
“Let them know that these are the steps, this is what’s possible,” said Wood. “Get the hook into them.”