The Young Fishermen’s Development Act aims to bolster success and succession in U.S. fisheries.
For 23-year-old Sam Linnell, there’s nothing better than getting up at sunrise to go fishing with his dad.
“The feeling of being out on the water most days, to be able to see the sunrise and sunset and be at the mercy of the ocean,” he says. “To work your ass off out there — there’s no better feeling than that.”
Linnell has been fishing with his father, Tim, out of Chatham, Mass., since age 7, catching cod, dogfish, skates — any groundfish they can get their hands on. After spending his childhood learning the ropes, Linnell now serves as a deck boss for his dad’s operation. Through a connection with a local captain who moved west, he also deckhands for a Dungeness crab boat in California for four months a year.
“Going to different ports and having a chance to work in other fisheries has been so valuable,” he says. “You get to see how other people work and can learn a lot. Whenever I come back from those West Coast trips, I can take on new responsibilities, I feel a little tougher.”
Owning his own boat is the dream, but the learning curve is daunting. Linnell has been looking into it, but slowly, he says.
“The work on the boat I can learn through experience. I’ve got a job on the boat, I know what I’m responsible for,” he says. “But as far as turning around and learning how to get ahold of a permit and the financial parts of buying a boat, it’s a tedious process. It’s hard to pick up and to learn in bits and pieces.”
Down the coast in Grasonville, Md., fisherman Ben Byers faces a similar dilemma. He’s been working in the industry since high school and currently works for a father-son team that owns four boats. Whether they’re after blue crab of softshell clams, Byers is there to pitch in.
He knows he wants to run his own boat soon but has decided to spend some time working up to the big day.
“I figured it’d be easier to go work for someone else and collect a paycheck for a while before dealing with the headache of going out on your own,” he says. “I bring my lunch, get on the boat, and they tell me what to do. Buying a boat and starting a new business… it’s a lot of stress.”
He’s already purchased a license, but the gear and boat he’s eyeing — admittedly an ambitious purchase to avoid starting out with a “half-assed rig” — would cost him around $150,000.
Fishermen in their 20s across the country are running into a wall of astronomical start-up costs without resources available to help them manage the transition financially. Gone are the days of buying a permit for a few grand and getting a deal on a boat from a retiring owner.
The introduction of limited-entry programs and individual fishing quotas have made the value of permits skyrocket to an easy six-figure price tag in successful fisheries, and the technology boom of the 21st century has made it easier for fishermen to stay involved in their fishery for much longer. This leaves fewer jobs and promotion opportunities for younger generations, along with the requirement to take on some serious debt to get started.
This issue has been dutifully studied in Alaska, where access rights and escalating costs are constantly a hot topic in fishing communities.
Working through the Alaska Marine Conservation Council in partnership with University of Alaska Fairbanks and Alaska Sea Grant, researchers have been studying the problem and looking for solutions. According to the study, the average age of Alaska fishery permit holders in 2015 was 50 years old, up nearly 10 years since 1980.
The study, carried out in Bristol Bay and Kodiak Archipelago fishing communities, consisted of interviews and surveys that gave researchers a close-up look at the problem. While fishing is still a huge part of Alaska life, permits are shifting away from rural communities and into the hands of out-of-state companies.
“In some villages there are now one or two permit holders when there used to be 30 or 40,” says co-principal investigator and anthropologist Rachel Donkersloot. “It’s already a problem in a lot of communities, and we need to look to fix it.”
With the migration of permits comes a decline in fishing ties. When a family stops fishing, the next generation doesn’t have that early connection and could miss out on critical institutional knowledge. In turn, there aren’t enough young people looking to take on leadership roles in their local fisheries, and permits continue to move out of state.
“What we started to hear was that there’s a lack of exposure to the industry from young students,” she says. “How do they know if they’re interested in this work? How do they know how to navigate getting involved? How can they afford to do so?”
Fishing communities throughout the country have made efforts to address these issues — the graying of the fleet, always-escalating costs, education around changing regulations — but industry leaders say they are disconnected overall.
After years of planning, the Fishing Communities Coalition, an association of community-based commercial fishing groups, has developed what they believe could be a solution to the industry’s youth problem — or at least a good start.
The Young Fishermen’s Development Act was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate this spring, and sponsoring legislators hope the bill will help break down the barriers young fishermen face.
The bill is modeled after the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s successful Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which launched in 2008 and is credited with preparing hundreds of young people for agricultural careers. That program supports those looking to get into aquaculture but did not include wild-catch fisheries.
Using the farmer’s program as a template, coalition members designed a bill that would work for fishermen. If passed, the bill would authorize $2 million annually to be distributed through grants of up to $200,000 a year to fund a variety of training programs for young fishermen. Grants would be managed by Sea Grant.
“The Farmer and Rancher Development Program is much more mature and robust than what we’ve proposed. We want to start out meaningful but modest,” said Jeff Pike, a former Chatham fisherman who now runs a lobbying group that represents fishing interests in the capitol. “We couldn’t ask for $30 million. You just can’t do that nowadays. But there’s a lot of support for this, and we hope it will be able to grow in the future.”
Fishing organizations would ideally collaborate and submit grant proposals for regional training initiatives. The bill includes a range of potential training concepts, including at-sea skills, sustainable fishing practices, marketing, financial and risk management, mentoring opportunities and more.
“When I started fishing, I hung out on the dock and became a box boy for a cod boat making $25 a day,” says Pike. “You can’t do that anymore. You’ve got to know someone, have a way of getting experience, and the cost of entry is so much more expensive today.”
While the bill is still working its way through Congress, there’s a buzz of excitement about the possibilities.
“I had never heard of anything like it, but I knew immediately that it could be a big deal,” said Linnell, who read the bill while traveling with his dad to Washington, D.C. “I’m blessed to be in my situation and to have met guys who have helped me out down the stretch. But I know that isn’t there for everyone.”
“It’s been very cool to see this happen from start to finish,” said Alyssa Russell, the communications coordinator for the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, a coalition member organization.
When she isn’t working with the longline association, Russell, 25, works part-time on a couple salmon trollers in Southeast Alaska. For her, getting into fishing wouldn’t have been possible without a training or mentorship program.
“It was kind of a pipe dream for me,” she says of fishing. While she grew up on the ocean in Cape Cod, she didn’t have any connections to the commercial industry. She decided to make the jump to Alaska while working for an NGO in Washington, D.C. “I enjoyed my job but had these pangs of feeling disconnected from people who actually worked with natural resources directly.”
She applied to be a communications fellow with the longline association and got on a fishing boat through the organization’s deckhand apprenticeship program that allows anyone to get some experience and learn the intricacies of commercial fishing.
“It’s been the perfect pilot program,” she says. “And the more we’ve worked on it, the more we’ve seen similar programs pop up in other communities.”
While these sorts of programs are still divided, Alaska is the leader in preparing young fishermen for careers.
“The state of Alaska invests a fair amount into workshops and outreach,” said Pike. “They’re underfunded and can’t hit as many communities as they want, but they still do a great job. If we could do half as much as Alaska in other states, that’d be a huge step.”
With top-down funding made available for these types of initiatives, organizers would be able to spend less time figuring out how to afford to help and could spend more time helping. While the programs would look different across the country, there would be the overarching theme of making connections and forming a more united and accessible national fishing community.
“We hear a lot of, ‘Oh, come on, fishing has always been hard! Just grab a boat and go for it.’ Obviously there’s no replacement for actually putting boats on deck and going fishing, but things have changed,” says Hannah Heimbuch, 32, a community fisheries organizer with the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. “Costs are high, there are more regulations than ever, and the markets are always fluctuating. This is not my grandfather’s fishery — and that’s OK. We need to make sure people are having these conversations.”
Occasionally, these conversations expose some hard feelings. Fishermen in general are supportive of bringing new faces into the industry, but there has been some kickback on the expansion of programs for young people in the industry.
“There’s been some perceived discomfort with some of the older generation — some people have been upset, thinking that by supporting young fishermen, these things aren’t supporting older fishermen,” said Heimbuch. “I would hate for anyone to think that. The only reason I’m a fisherman is because of the fishermen that came before me.”
Even though most of these efforts have the word “young” in the name, they aren’t necessarily limited to those young in age. Most are geared toward people new to the industry or new to certain aspects of the industry and could be helpful for non-millennials, as well.
If one thing is clear, it’s that young fishermen look up to seasoned veterans of the industry and aim to have the same grit and determination.
In Annapolis, Md., 19-year-old Casey Schneck already runs his own 42-foot crab boat and couldn’t be prouder of his decision to be a fisherman.
“I love it. I don’t ever want to do anything else,” said Schneck, who dropped out of high school at age 16 to fish full-time. “I’ve always wanted to spend all day on the water. It’s been tough, a learning experience, but I’m committed to it.”
The bill itself opens with a commitment to preserving U.S. fishing heritage — something that fishermen have latched onto and care about deeply. At the end of the day every fishermen, old or young, wants to see their profession and culture passed on to the next generation.
The freedom that comes with fishing is an obvious draw for the younger crowd, but they also aren’t afraid of hard work.
“You’ve got to love it to make a living doing it. This job is a gamble every day — you never know what you’ll make or what will happen out on the water — but I’ll always find a way to make a living doing it,” said Byers. “It’s so rewarding. You can’t help but feel good at the end of a long day or smile when you deliver your catch to a restaurant and see people enjoying it.”
Young fishermen also have a deep respect for the industry’s history and are fighting to preserve it.
“Fishing is the oldest profession there is, and it’s a unbelievable thing to be a part of,” says Linnell. “We’re out here trying to make a living, but we also realize we’re a part of something that’s deeply rooted in history. If we lose fishing, we’re losing such an essential part of America.”