Back in the 1970s, before I moved to Washington, DC to work on Capitol Hill, I started my working life as a commercial fisherman on Cape Cod. To get a fishing job back then, you walked the docks and usually could get a site on a lobster boat as a sternman or on a cod boat as a “box boy.” All you needed were some oilskins and a bag lunch.
Those were the least skilled positions, but they offered an opportunity to learn and grow and eventually make it to the wheelhouse or even become a boat owner, as I was able to do.
Sadly, that world no longer exists.
Today, the cost of entering commercial fisheries is staggering, and vessel captains can’t risk taking a “greenhorn” on their boat. Fewer boats are fishing, so jobs are that much harder to find.
An understanding of complex rules and regulations is mandatory, as are the finer skills of electronics, navigation and seamanship. It’s just plain hard and costly to enter commercial fishing today.
As a result, the average age of America’s commercial fishermen continues to rise, and this poses a serious threat to the future of the U.S. fishing industry and fishing communities.
I see this challenge not only from the perspective of a former fisherman, but also as someone who has been deeply involved in maritime and fisheries issues at the policy level, having served as Chief of Staff of the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries in the 1990s.
There are policy solutions to address this problem, and we even have a model of how to do it. Farmers and ranchers faced a very similar situation years ago, and Congress responded by enacting the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. Young farmers and ranchers have benefitted enormously from this federal support over the years, ensuring a bright future for the next generation.
Because there is not a single federal program to provide support and resources to young commercial fishermen, a coalition of fishing communities from Cape Cod to Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico — the Fishing Communities Coalition — has developed a solution called the Young Fishermen’s Development Program. Fishing communities are asking Congress to support this program to ensure a future for young people on the water and the communities where they live.
Modeled after the successful program for young farmers, the Young Fishermen’s Development Program would create a first-of-its-kind national program exclusively dedicated to assisting, educating and training the next generation of commercial fishermen.
The program would provide competitive grants to foster collaborative state, tribal, regional and local partnerships; promote mentorship opportunities for retiring fishermen and vessel owners; and provide support for regional training and education programs focused on accountable, sustainable fishing and sound business practices.
In short, the program would do for future fishermen what a few captains were once willing to do for me — create a way for young people to enter the industry, except in this case with a greater understanding of the whole industry and the marine ecosystem. The best part is that the cost of the program would be paid for by fines and penalties collected from fishermen who have violated the fishing rules.
Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in both the U.S. Senate and House — the Young Fishermen’s Development Act (H.R.2079, S.1323) — but time is short, and Congress must act soon. Young fishermen are the lifeblood of America’s commercial fishing industry, and they need your support. Whether you’re a boat owner, fish house, restaurant, distributor, processor, chef or just an ordinary consumer of America’s sustainably harvested seafood, you can make a difference for the next generation of commercial fishermen. Contact your senator and congressman and ask them to support the next generation of America’s commercial fishermen by sponsoring this critical legislation.
Without such support, a young kid like I once was doesn’t stand a chance to live out his or her dream of a life and career on the water.
Jeffrey Pike is founder and CEO of Pike Associates, a bipartisan government relations practice. Pike worked on Capitol Hill from 1979 to 1995, including a stint as chief of staff for the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries under Chairman Gerry Studds (D-MA), an original author of the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Pike also served as staff director for the House Subcommittee on Fisheries, Wildlife and the Environment. Before coming to Washington, D.C., Pike owned and operated a commercial fishing vessel out of Chatham, Massachusetts.