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Stephanie Sykes recently wrapped up a grant proposal aimed at getting young men and women into the industry/" 1951 target="_blank">fishing industry.

The Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance proposal is in partnership with the MIT Sea Grant program. The grant would fund the development of a curriculum for a fishermen’s training program. 

Sykes is an outreach and program coordinator with the alliance. She also works as a deckhand on the F/V Peggy B II, fishing for conch and black sea bass. She talks to a lot of people in the industry, whether they fish for lobster, scallops or finfish. Many need help on their boats. 

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“I get a lot of calls asking, ‘Do you have anyone for me? I need a deckhand for my lobster boat, or other fishery,’” she said.  

Doreen Leggett, communications officer for the alliance, said in an email that the industry recognized there was a problem years ago with what she called a “graying of the fleet.”  

An aging work force

So many fishermen and women are on the cusp of retiring that it’s posing a threat to industry resilience and the nation’s food security, according to National Marine Fisheries Service. Commercial fisheries, part of the blue economy, provide jobs and food, and are the backbone of many coastal communities. The problem isn’t confined to the Cape or New England. It stretches along the country’s coasts and Great Lakes. 

In 2019, there were 1.2 million commercial jobs and $165 billion in commercial sales across the country, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration economic impact report. In Massachusetts, landings revenue added up to $681 million. 

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While market growth dropped 1.4% from 2017 to 2022, it’s expected to increase 5.3% in 2022 because of increased seafood prices and consumption, according to IBISWorld, a market research firm. 

That’s proof of potential, according to Jared Auerbach, CEO of Red’s Best, a fish wholesaler that processes, packages, labels and distributes fish products from across New England.

This is an exciting time for the seafood industry according to Auerbach. Fish stocks are returning to good levels, fisheries are healthy, and officials — and fishermen — are doing a good job of regulating them so they remain sustainable into the future.  

“If people told the truth about the industry, young people would find their way onto these boats,” Auerbach said. “Because we do a good job, fish stocks have gone up and prices and quotas have gone up. This is a very well managed industry that you can get into.” 

He said he is proud to participate in the harvest of wild protein, feed his community and do it in way that is sustainable. But the industry has been vilified by the media for decades, he claimed. Doom and gloom articles claiming that the ocean is being overfished and species are going extinct have tainted people’s opinions about commercial fishing.  

Workers are hard to find

“The reality is 40 years ago we did overfish, but we came together,” Auerbach said. “We’ve figured out a way to fish in a sustainable, profitable way. We created jobs. That’s the story. The problem is no one is writing about it.” 

Chatham fisherman Greg Walinski isn’t as optimistic. He said finding help is a huge problem these days and the economy of the Cape doesn’t help – especially with the lack of affordable housing and home prices that have risen exorbitantly since the pandemic began.  

“We used to have guys show up at the dock asking for work,” Walinski said. “It’s not happening. It’s really hard for people who don’t make a lot of money to make it here. If a young guy wants to get on a good lobster or scallop boat, okay, but it’s still not easy.”  

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The boat Walinski built in 1990 cost him $100,000. Today it would cost $250,000 to replace. Then there are permit costs, catch shares, quotas, regulations and reams of paperwork to fill out, he said. A lobster permit runs about $100,000, traps another $100,000. Most fisheries are closed, but not the dogfish fishery. That season is short, however. It runs for about three months.  

“You can’t make a living on three months,” he said.  

Funding the next generation of fishermen

There is a glimmer of hope on the horizon: the Young Fishermen’s Development Act, passed in 2021. A Senate appropriations subcommittee approved $2 million for funding the first of its kind — a national workforce development program — for fiscal 2023. The funding will provide the next generation of fishermen the tools they need to work safely and productively, and keep working waterfronts and coastal communities vital.  

The goal is not only to recruit and train, but retain as well. Members must be supported with business planning, technical support, guidance on regulations and permits, and advocacy on fisheries policy and regulations, Sykes said.  

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The alliance, which is based in Chatham, was part of the six-year initiative to get the act passed, Sykes said. The grant she is working on in partnership with the MIT Sea Grant is part of the push to get ready for the Young Fishermen’s Development Act when its funding is expected to be approved this fall. Sykes expects there to be opportunities in outreach, education, training and technical assistance. 

“There’s a lot of support for the farming industry, but not so much for the fishing industry,” she said. “Fishing is a humbling, important, noble profession. It should be supported and celebrated.” 

Auerbach agrees.

“We have to start celebrating our local commercial fishermen,” he said. “We have to change the outdated false narrative about our oceans being overfished — everything else will follow.” 

But the fact is the cod stock isn’t as vigorous as it has been historically. There are some who think the cod have moved north into cooler waters because of climate change. Establishing a program to train young fishermen won’t bring cod stocks back to George’s Bank.   

Sharing culinary tips for the catch

Another kind of education is needed, according to Doug Feeney, a commercial fisherman from Chatham. He and four other fishermen got together to form the Chatham Harvesters Cooperative a year ago. The cooperative holds educational and chef-led events where they try to show people how to prepare species people are less familiar with, such as the spiny dogfish.  

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The cooperative worked with Red’s Best to come up with five value-added products made out of dogfish; a Noah burger, named after Feeney’s son, a fish stick, a spicy fish stick, a chicken nugget style fish stick, and the Beer Battered UK. The products are at 20 institutions and colleges, Feeney said.  

“When people come to Cape Cod, they want cod and haddock,” he said. “The sad part is they are eating cod from Iceland. We have to educate young kids on eating what the ocean provides us, not what we want from the ocean.”   

Contact Denise Coffey at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter: @DeniseCoffeyCCT. 

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