CHATHAM — The Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance (CCCFA) plans to offer a six-day course to teach people the basic skills needed to work on a commercial fishing boat. That might seem to defy logic, given how much we hear about the hardships of the fishing life. Still, the training is being funded by a grant from the commonwealth that seems to suggest some optimism about the state of the profession.
As was reported by Sophie Ruehr in the Independent on Nov. 14 of this year, fishing is one of the most hazardous occupations out there. But the same report found promise in both new safety training and better insurance.
Pay for fishing jobs is generally low. The Bureau of Labor Statistics offers data from May 2017 showing the median annual wage for fishing and hunting workers was just $28,530.
While the bureau suggests that there will be job openings in fishing in the years ahead, it chalks those up to the not-very-enticing fact that “workers leave because of the strenuous and hazardous nature of the job and the lack of a steady year-round income.”
Nick Muto, at 39 one of the youngest captains in the Chatham fishing fleet, begs to differ. “Fishing is a good job, a rewarding job,” Muto said. “You get out of it what you put into it. If you put all your effort into it, you should be able to reap the rewards.”
According to CCCFA, there were 1,867 commercial fishermen in Barnstable County in 2017, and they landed $73.8 million worth of fish. Only 32 percent of fishermen in the county were under age 40.
Muto operates a gillnet boat for finfish and a lobster boat. He estimates entry-level crew members in Chatham earn $200 a day, and experienced deckhands make $60,000 to $80,000 working 150 days a year. Muto is also the chair of the board of the CCCFA.
Muto’s argument reflects something the alliance publicizes in nearly all its communications: reality for what they call “small boat” local fishermen is not so dire. They make the case that local fishing is really a different business altogether than that of the larger corporate-owned boats where dispensable minimum-wage workers are the norm, and getting creative to diversify where revenues come from is just not possible.
The towns of Provincetown, Chatham, Sandwich, and Bourne still have working fishing fleets of measurable size, and some boats operate out of other harbors as well. Fishing boats in the county are typically small, with a crew of 2 to 4, and go out to sea for less than 24 hours. This is in contrast to bigger Massachusetts harbors such as New Bedford and Gloucester, where there are larger ships that go out for longer spans of time.
The alliance course will be taught by local boat captains, including Muto, as well as instructors from the Coast Guard Auxiliary and New England Maritime. Students will delve into boating safety, law, equipment, and how to deal with emergencies on the water. Details from how to tie knots to handling gear will be taught.
The alliance hopes the impact will be cross-generational, improving the profession for those already in it as well as for those just starting out.
“We want to provide people the tools they need to have good careers, and we want captains to have access to good people,” program administrator Amanda Cousart told the Independent. For that reason, the alliance is planning networking event in the spring with local captains.
CCCFA has been reaching out to high schools, technical schools, and veterans’ organizations in Barnstable County to recruit students for the course, which is open to applicants of all ages.
But Will There Be Fish?
“Fishing is a good job,” said Bill Amaru, who fishes out of Orleans. “It gives you independence, and it can give you good income. It teaches you to rely on your own skills, and it builds discipline.” He said he used to concentrate on finfish, but now goes mainly for scallops.
“My son is very happy with the trade, but not with the rules and regulations, and I would not encourage any of my six grandchildren to get into it,” said Amaru, who is not connected with the CCCFA course. Amaru remembers that there were 40 or 45 trawlers in Provincetown harbor as recently as the 1980s.
The fishing industry on Cape Cod, and in the U.S. generally, declined for decades as stocks were depleted by overfishing. As a result, fishing is now highly managed and regulated. But the alliance argues that some of the regulations have led to some successes in braking or even reversing the downward spiral in many fish populations.
Cape Cod boats typically fish for the familiar cod, tuna, bluefish, and striped bass, but also less-familiar species such as skate, monkfish, and dogfish. Some boats specialize in shellfish, including lobster, scallops, mussels, and conch. That flexibility is part of what makes the work viable.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) monitors 479 fishing stocks nationwide, categorized by species and location. Of these, it still classifies 15 populations in the New England area as “overfished,” meaning the numbers are severely depleted, while “overfishing” continues for seven of these, meaning the amount of fish taken exceeds the sustainable yield.
Species that are on both the “overfished” and “overfishing” lists include cod in the Gulf of Maine and on Georges Bank, yellowtail flounder, and mackerel.
But there is evidence that at least some regulation has actually worked. NOAA says the number of fish on the overfished list reached an all-time low in 2017 and remained near all-time lows in 2018. The agency reports that, since 2000, 45 of the 479 stocks have been “rebuilt,” meaning the population has recovered to levels considered sustainable.
“We are starting to see more sustainable fishing practices, and more accountability on the water,” said Muto. “We are still successful on the water. There are businesses that are thriving.”
The course, which is being offered for the first time, will take place over six days in late January and early February, and CCCFA is hoping to attract 10 to 15 students. Classes will be held at the CCCFA in Chatham. The application can be found at capecodfishermen.org/policy.