Finding Crew Members Isn't Easy For Local Fishermen; Alliance Offers Training Program For Industry Newbies

By: Doreen Leggett

Cape Cod Technical High School Marine Services Instructor Alex Riker, right, and Captain Sean Leach talk to a group of students about a possible career in the commercial fisheries. COURTESY PHOTO

Maria Marelli, a local bartender, has worked on several shellfish farms and is looking to get on a commercial fishing vessel, so when a call came at 4 a.m. she picked up.

But when the captain asked if she wanted to go out that day, she said no. She was attending the Fishermen Training program she had told him about.

“Awesome,” was his response.

Marelli told her story on a recent sunny Saturday at the Fishermen’s Alliance, with eight other aspiring fishermen assembled for the beginning of an intensive two-day course. She learned about a host of fisheries from a half-dozen fishermen, skills needed on deck, as well as jumping into the cool, lint-colored water of Stage Harbor for marine safety training. 

The free training, supported by a grant from National Fisheries and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), was the second the Fishermen’s Alliance has held focused on connecting those interested in a career in the commercial fisheries with jobs.

The industry isn't immune to the national and regional shortage of workers.

“Many local captains are looking for crew and that number continues to increase,” said Stephanie Sykes, program and outreach coordinator for the Fishermen’s Alliance, who organized the training.

Captains have been lobbying for a training program for years. And it isn’t just positions on the back of the boat that are unfilled. Captains are putting off substantial investments.

“I’ve have been thinking about buying a second boat,” said Captain Chris King, who also owns and runs a diversified seafood retail and wholesale business. “It’s tough to find a skipper and crew to commit. The whole stick in the spokes is the captain and crew.”

To help sustain a major economic driver of the Cape’s Blue Economy, the Fishermen’s Alliance has launched a variety of programs. In addition to training, online curriculum will be available early next year, more time at sea is in the works, and Sykes has become a one-woman job referral service.

NFWF support also made it possible for a class of sophomores and seniors in the marine services program at Cape Cod Regional Technical High School to get aboard a lobster and scallop boat in Wychmere Harbor.

“Some of our fishermen members went through the commercial fishing program at Cape Cod Tech,” Sykes said. “The program was phased out, but it is still a promising career and the instructors of the marine services program have been very supportive of our efforts to introduce the next generation to the possibility of working in the industry.”

Fielding DeWitt, 18, is a Tech student who also attended the second day of training, focused on safety, run by Fathom Resources. 

He was working on Saturday, lobstering for close to 16 hours. He likes to keep his Sundays free, but Sean and Mark Leach, his bosses on the boat, emphasize the importance of safety, so he was happy to attend.

The morning was filled with learning distress signals, including radio and flares, as well as how to fight fires. 

Before they headed to Stage Harbor for the in-water training, the group practiced trying on survival suits at the office. The goal was to get them on in less than a minute.

Another fisherman, Mike Van Hoose, was the rock star of the group, putting on the red suit that will save your life in 30 seconds.  

Both of the captains who DeWitt and Van Hoose work for were there as instructors on the first day.  

Mark Leach, who has been fishing for more than 45 years, spoke about longlining for groundfish when cod was abundant before transitioning to the lobster industry about 30 years ago. Al Cestaro has also been fishing for most of his life. Among other things, he runs a surf clam boat out of Dennis and Orleans.  

Fishermen Training provided basic knowledge to help crew succeed, but captains said some things were more important than experience.

“Some of the best crew I ever had had no experience,” Captain Greg Connors said, adding with a laugh, “They are devoid of bad habits.” Those two former crew members now own their own boats and are successful captains. 

All agreed attitude makes the difference, like DeWitt going the extra mile on Sunday. But a great attitude can’t get some people past the long hours and toughness of the job. 

Connors, captain of the Constance Sea, was looking for more crew last summer. He had try-outs; one guy didn’t last long at all, the other stayed for about a month.

“It’s mostly endurance and attitude,” he said. 

When he spoke to the Tech students, Sean Leach echoed his fellow captains: If you work hard, your pay is commensurate.

“We profit-share on our boats,” said Sean Leach. “That’s how my father did it. That’s how I do it. I want (those who work for me) to have fun and be able to have a life.”

Leach gave students a tour of his new boat, from engine room to lobster hold, and said there are opportunities for success in the Cape’s small-boat fisheries. 

Jakeob Ambrosini, a sophomore, was impressed by the engine room. He works for the family business, Nauset Fish Market and Lobster Pool in Orleans, and sees a career in fishing.

“I just like the water; I’ve been told it’s in my blood and I don’t mind long hours,” Ambrosini said. 

Keegan Doherty, a senior, also is considering a future in fishing. He does mostly rod and reel, bluefish and striped bass.

“It’s the fight,” he said.

Several of those in the Fishermen Training program, including Cary Paine who works on two shellfish grants, are looking to start fishing right way. Many fishermen start as crew and save enough money to buy their own boats. On the Cape, crew can be paid anywhere from $150 to $1,000 a day.

But it’s more than the money, said Captain Mike Abdow. He knows a lot of people who drag their feet going to work – but not in his business.

“See ya…I’m going fishing,” he summarized.

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