By Doreen Leggett
Captain Eric Hesse has spent a lot of time writing letters advocating for a sustainable bluefin tuna fishery as well as putting legwork into developing new markets for the fish he has harpooned for more than a quarter of a century.
But now there is another problem on the horizon, not regulations or lack of demand: crew.
“My sons have fished with me for the last decade and they are moving on. I have pretty significant gaps to fill in terms of crew, so I’m not just standing at the dock,” he said.
He isn’t alone in that feeling.
Stephanie Sykes says many fisheries are doing well this year, with higher than average prices. But even the most lucrative fisheries are having a problem getting help.
“We have had more boats looking for crew than I have ever seen,” says Sykes, program and outreach coordinator for the Fishermen’s Alliance. “There are so many fishing jobs and they are not listed on ‘Indeed.’”
To introduce more people to a career in the fisheries, the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance is taking a multi-pronged initiative that launches next month.
With grant funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Fishermen’s Alliance is hosting a two-day training that covers essential safety and navigation lessons as well as courses taught by captains that focus on various fisheries, different gear types and responsibilities on deck.
That intensive, free course will be held November 6 and 7, part of a larger effort that includes a mini-course at Cape Cod Technical Regional High School. Online curriculum that covers much of what is learned in person is expected to be released at the end of the year.
That work will become the platform for a larger effort, in partnership with MIT Sea Grant, to a clear, navigable process for aspiring fishermen to get training, a streamlined way to connect with hiring captains, and set up a second-tier program to assist crew wanting to move into the captain’s chair over time.
The more advanced level could provide a young fisherman with advice on how and where to buy permits, or what permits to purchase. Oftentimes newcomers don’t know permits are for sale in a certain fishery, for example black sea bass or tautog, or how to finance. Perhaps they need help learning how to balance the books when they begin selling.
Getting more people to pursue a career in the fisheries has become increasingly important to the nonprofit started by fishermen 30 years ago. In recent years, local supply chains and dock-to-dish has been highlighted, as has the importance of commercial fishing to coastal communities.
The need for more crew for commercial fisheries across the Cape is why Hesse, and other successful captains, were early supporters of the Fishermen’s Training pilot the Fishermen’s Alliance started soon before COVID in 2019.
“There is clearly a need,” said Captain Nick Muto, who taught one of the classes in the pilot. “There will be retiring guys, and with the turnover of fishermen in the harbor there is definitely a need for new employees.”
Based on input from Muto and others there are plans to improve the program with an eye toward spending time training on the water. Most captains say that a long day at sea makes it pretty clear if commercial fishing suits you or not.
A handful of graduates, who completed six days of the course just as the pandemic reached the United States, have pursued various paths — lobstering, rod and reel, conching.
Two graduates, Ken Baughman and Tony Day, sat in on a recent Zoom and talked about the pilot they attended and gave suggestions for future trainings.
Both particularly liked one-on-ones with captains who talked about what to expect at sea.
“It was unfiltered, the real deal,” said Day . “They really talked about what it takes to get through the whole season.”
And Day added, they made it clear that the more effort you put in often means more return.
Baughman agreed, adding that there are a number of barriers for those who want to enter the industry.
“The pilot program I attended began to break down those barriers,” he said. “I’ve learned that although there may be people who want to make their living (commercial fishing) it is virtually impossible without some kind of apprenticeship or training support.”