CHATHAM — For many years, fighting for a sustainable commercial fishery meant ensuring that there were enough fish in the sea to support the industry. A new sustainability initiative seeks to ensure that, years from now, there are enough fishermen.
Though fishing is often a family business, there's never been a coordinated, nationwide effort to train, educate and support the next generation of commercial fishermen, even though a similar federal program is in place to support up-and-coming farmers and ranchers.
A House bill filed by Republican Congressman Don Young of Alaska and Massachusetts Democrat Seth Moulton, whose district covers Gloucester, would provide $2 million in grants annually to provide fishermen with specialized training and support. Grants of up to $200,000 each would be provided to fishermen through the Sea Grant Program administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The legislation is modeled after the USDA's Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program.
Chatham Fisherman Tim Linnell, whose father and great-grandfather were fishermen, has been encouraging his sons to take up the family business.
“They grew up on the boat. They all did,” Linnell said. His oldest son, 23-year-old Sam, fishes with his dad during warm weather, and then goes crabbing in California in the winter. Even with all the obstacles fishermen face, the small-boat fishery can still offer a decent living, he said.
It's no secret that the industry struggles with overfishing, a fluctuating market, and a complex regulatory environment, but Linnell isn't discouraging his kids from considering commercial fishing.
“My generation has really been hit hard,” he said. “But with the amount of fish in the water, with the stocks increasing all the time, I think the younger guys are going to benefit from all the hard work we did.”
In the short term, young fishermen on the Cape can make a living fishing for dogfish, monkfish and skate, as long as the fishery is kept sustainable, Linnell said.
“Those fisheries could last a long time. There's no overfishing occurring.” With sustainable fishing practices that minimize bycatch – inadvertently caught fish from other species – these formerly “underutilized species” have value, particularly with a growing market. What will Sam be fishing from years from now?
“I think he and maybe his little brother will be groundfishing again,” he said. Cod, haddock and flounder are still recovering from years of overfishing, but formed the staple of the local commercial fishery for more than a generation.
Linnell plans to fish as long as he can, but will likely provide his valuable fishing permits to his sons. Obtaining permits is another challenge for new fishermen, but they can be purchased from retiring fishermen, or quota shares can be obtained through the Cape Cod Fisheries Trust, a program of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen's Alliance. Working with the Community Development Partnership, the trust offers a variety of services to fishermen, including help developing a business plan.
The fishermen's alliance supports the proposed Young Fishermen's Development Act, and CEO John Pappalardo said it will help support the survival of fishing communities in New England and across the country. He said the alliance looks forward to working with the bill's authors “on this important effort to ensure the next generation of commercial fishermen are on the water and ready to sustainably harvest America's seafood.”
Still, does Linnell ever think twice about encouraging his sons to take up commercial fishing, one of the nation's most dangerous occupations?
“We've been doing a lot of safety training,” he said. “But you're on the water and anything can happen.” Fishing today is much safer than it was when he was young, Linnell said. “All we had was a radar and that was it,” he said. Today's improved weather forecasts and other high-tech tools improve safety, and at least in the summertime, local boats tend to work just three miles offshore.
But being safe on the water also means being able to cope with unexpected emergencies, and commercial fishermen need a wide range of skills to do so.
“One of the things [offered under the bill] is training for engine care and maintenance,” Linnell said. Even at the dock it can be tough to find a marine mechanic, let alone when a fisherman is offshore. And with fishing boat engines costing $100,000 or more, “you want to get the most money out of it,” he said.
Though it isn't for everyone – one of Linnell's sons is a college student who doesn't want much to do with fishing – the industry still holds promise for the future.
“If you work hard, you're going to do well,” he said. “And if you get a couple breaks.”