New Law Designed To Lower Barriers To Entry Into Fishing Industry

By: Doreen Leggett

Stephanie Sykes was one of several Cape fishermen who traveled to Washington, D.C. to lobby for passage of the Young Fishermen’s Development Act. COURTESY PHOTO

Ken Baughman has fished since he was a kid and loves being on the water. The Falmouth resident, smart and determined, bought a second-hand motor, built his own boat and launched his career as a commercial fisherman this summer. It has been tough going.

“It’s virtually impossible. You really have to come in as an apprentice,” he said.

That may soon be a possibility with the recent passage by Congress of the Young Fishermen’s Development Act. The act, modeled after the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s successful Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, creates the first federal program dedicated to training, educating, and assisting the next generation of commercial fishermen and includes an apprenticeship program to connect retiring fishermen and vessel owners with new and beginning fishermen.

“The Young Fishermen’s Development 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.

The Fishermen's Alliance is a member of the Fishing Communities Coalition (FCC), an association of community-based, small-boat commercial fishing groups from Maine to Alaska which began advocating for legislation to turn the tide on the greying of the fleet in 2015.

At the coalition's urging, the bill was first filed in 2017, and has been doggedly supported by Senators Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren as well as Representatives Seth Moulton and William Keating. 

“Despite centuries of fishing tradition in Massachusetts’ coastal communities, new fishermen are finding it a challenge to join the industry,” said Markey in a statement that also thanked his Alaskan colleagues. “Our legislation will help ensure that our fishing industry continues to attract and grow future generations of young fishermen. More young men and women will be pushing off the dock into new careers and fully participating in the economy of their communities.”

Over the years, more than 50 fishermen in FCC have had close to 200 meetings with members of Congress to talk about how important the bill was to the future of the industry. The bill would provide financial support 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 through a competitive grants program for collaborative state, tribal, local, or regionally-based networks or partnerships.

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.

“The passing of the Young Fishermen’s Development Act is a huge achievement for small-boat fleets across the country. 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.” 

In recent years, incoming generations of commercial fishermen seeking to enter the industry have met new challenges and higher entry barriers, contributing to several shifts in the demographics of commercial permit holders. 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 need for a training program has been strong on the Cape. The Fishermen’s Alliance launched a small program where local captains and groups like the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary taught everything from navigation to gear to safety. 

Captain Nick Muto was one of the instructors of the program. He has been a champion of the act because the industry has gotten so complex over the years – with marketing considerations, debt management, buying and leasing “quotas” of fish and myriad regulations. Gone are the days when you just learn on the water.

Muto said he thinks it’s important the government stepped in to help keep the industry viable. 

“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 said. 

Pappalardo said having the bill signed into law is particularly critical now. 

"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.”

Doreen Leggett is the community journalist for the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance. She can be contacted at doreen@capecodfishermen.org.