Veteran Harvesters Focus on Training the Next Generation of Crew

(Left) Learning to bring big fish onboard is all part of the training for young fishermen, many of them guided by veteran commercial harvesters who volunteer their time to ensure the next generation of fishermen are ready to take the reins as crew and skippers of fishing boats in the years to come. Photo by Eric Jordan, courtesy of Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association. (Right) The joy of a robust catch of a large Chinook salmon is one of the rewards for young fishermen who sign up for crew training with programs offered by veteran fishermen in Southeast and Southwest Alaska.
Photo by Eric Jordan, courtesy of Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association.

Good crew members for commercial fishing boats come in all sizes and ages, with varied skill sets. But these days, with an overall labor shortage, finding the right crew can prove challenging for skippers getting ready for any number of directed fisheries in Alaska.

“Not all crew work out and not every crew is the right fit for a particular boat, but just finding crew has been tough,” Linda Behnken, a veteran harvester who is the executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association (ALFA) in Sitka, Alaska said.

What with the fleet aging and the average commercial fisherman being 50 years of age, up nearly 10 years over the 1980s, entities ranging from ALFA to Alaska Sea Grant are working to increase training programs for anyone interested in crewing, be they a greenhorn or a veteran crewman who wants to increase their skill level.

In Dillingham, Alaska, Tav Ammu, a marine advisory agent with Alaska Sea Grant, is already looking at a skipper apprenticeship training program to help even greenhorns complete the process of becoming successful skippers.

The micro-credentialled class, for which Sea Grant wrote a successful proposal last year, would be through the University of Alaska’s Dillingham campus in Southwest Alaska and would include instruction in everything from knot tying and mending nets and brailors, to cold water survival, fighting fires onboard and personal floatation devices.

Crew training classes in Dillingham “may open up whenever we think there is a demand for them,” Ammu said. A lot of those interested in the classes may already have a crew job lined up. These students may have decided on an individual basis to take the class or are being sent by their skippers to participate.

Students in a recent class he taught included a 14-year-old and a teacher from the Lower 48 who decided in wanted to give commercial fishing a try. The instructors included Ammu, Marine Advisory Program fisheries specialist Gabe Dunham and Kristina Andrew, economic development program manager for the Bristol Bay Native Association, plus there were half a dozen local skippers who offered advice and answered trainees’ questions.

Students practiced emergency response to simulated life-threatening situations aboard commercial fishing vessels in Bristol Bay. They donned immersion suits in the classroom, then went to the Dillingham boat harbor for an actual immersive experience.

In another skills class, they learned about emergency signals used in a survival situation, then went to the harbor and practiced lighting signal flares.

Training may also include net hanging, fish picking, techniques, boat handling and international rules for preventing collisions at sea, in conjunction with the world-class accredited Alaska Marine Safety Education Association’s safety training program.

AMSEA’s mission is reducing injury and death in the marine and freshwater environment through training provided by qualified marine safety instructors. Former AMSEA executive director Jerry Dzugan, now the association’s trainer and special projects lead, has for years taught AMSEA health and safety courses, including instructor training in Alaska and across the Lower 48.

Two young fishermen learning the basics of being a good commercial fishing crew celebrate some of their catch in the waters of Southeast Alaska. Photo by Eric Jordan, courtesy of Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association.

Ammu, who has professional training with AMSEA, said he would teach an on-board drill conductor course at Dutch Harbor in October, a course in which he said he plans to combine everything from crew sills to cold water survival techniques, firefighting and more.

Meanwhile in Sitka, ALFA has made an ongoing effort to keep its fleet informed and educated on a variety of fisheries issues, with informative workshops and classes, on topics such as bathymetric mapping, business skills, ocean acidification, policy and other issues relevant to harvesters.

ALFA’s Crew Apprentice Program (CAP) addresses many of the challenges of the commercial fishing industry, including a decline in young people getting into fisheries, the shortage of experienced crew and the hesitancy of many young people, especially women, to sign on to a boat for the first time.

ALFA skipper Eric Jordan decided to start taking young people fishing in 2015 in what he called an experiential fishing program, and found that he quickly had more applicants than he had fishing time.

With Jordan’s help, ALFA developed curriculum for crew apprentices and host skippers. The program now takes 100 or more applicants each year, with 50 skippers trained to host greenhorn deckhands.

According to ALFA’s 2021-2022 annual report, after six years the CAP has trained over 50 skippers to host apprentices and placed 90 new or experienced crew members on commercial fishing boats.

Some of these apprentices fish for a few trips, while others sign on for a full season.  Many of them have returned the following year to increase their skill level on the same or different fishing boats and two have now invested in their own boats.

CAP helps ease connections between fishermen of different ages and experience levels, to provide networking and educational opportunities for young fishermen. It also helps to increase participation by young fishermen in local, state and national fisheries policy, and has supported travel for many CAP graduates to Washington D.C. to advocate for the Young Fishermen’s Development Act and healthy oceans.

With grant support, ALFA noted in its annual report, the association has been able to provide entry level opportunities to over 90 young people and to create program curricula shared with other fisheries organizations in Alaska and the Lower 48.

ALFA has also shared deckhand apprentice materials via presentations to the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, Gulf of Mexico Shareholders Alliance, Sea Grant and fishing groups in Seattle and elsewhere across in the U.S.

In 2016 ALFA and the Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust, whose mandate is to strengthen fishing communities through research, education and economic opportunity, partnered in hosting the first Sitka Fishermen’s Expo, with workshops on topics ranging from fuel efficiency, habitat mapping and gear innovation to reducing sperm whale depredation on longline gear.

In the ensuing years, the Sitka Fishermen’s Expo also included topics focusing specifically on young fishermen, including workshops on bookkeeping, business planning, body ergonomics, electrical systems and beginner and advanced courses in bathymetric mapping.

In 2020, ALFA transitioned to hosting its Fishermen’s Expo virtually, again partnering with ASFT. That included four virtual Expos in 2021 and 2022 for fishermen throughout Alaska and the Lower 48 able to participate in training and educational workshops.

By then, the workshops included intensive training for support sector businesses, direct support to local fishermen through Zoom-classroom-based workshops, with participants able to engage in question-and-answer troubleshooting conversations.

ALFA also worked with over 40 presenters to conduct direct training that provided technical education, policy training and more. Presenters offered presentations on software and new technology support, apprentice host skipper training, permit and quota purchasing, as well as marine mammal deterrents and regulations, mental health and commercial fishing.

According to ALFA’s annual report, over 100 individuals on average register for Fishermen’s Expo, and many more were included in training via outreach, sharing Expo videos and recordings and other efforts to share the educational opportunities.

ALFA also produces an annual SeaBank report, with updates on primary goods and services provided by the natural capital of Southeast Alaska’s coastal temperate rainforests, estuaries, freshwater aquatic ecosystems fueled by glaciers and precipitation, and the nearshore and offshore marine waters, including a wealth of seafood.

The Young Fishermen’s Development Act, passed by Congress in 2020 and signed into law in January, 2021, is the first federal program dedicated to America’s young fishermen. ALFA helped to draft that legislation with the Fishing Communities Coalition, a national advocacy group representing over 1,000 independent and business owners from Maine to Florida and from California to Alaska.

ALFA noted in its annual report that NOAA requested solicitations by organizations in 2022 to apply for funding for continued and expanded training opportunities.

“With additional funding, we can continue to address the greying of the fleet and provide young fishermen opportunities to succeed in fisheries,” the report stated.

Meanwhile, Alaska Sea Grant’s Marine Advisory Program is preparing to welcome new entrants of all ages interesting in learning more about owning and operating a commercial fishing business to the Alaska Young Fishermen’s Summit in Anchorage Dec. 5-7. 

The summit offers three days of intensive training and networking opportunities with speakers from the commercial fishing industry, plus field trips to management meetings, universities, laboratories, hatcheries and legislative offices.

The summit relives on generous support from fishing associations skippers, economic development groups and related businesses, as well as sponsors for individual summit participants.  

Margaret Bauman is an Alaska journalist and photographer with an extensive background in Alaska’s industries and environmental issues related to those industries. A long-time Alaska resident, she has also covered news of national and international importance in other states on the staff of United Press International, the Associated Press, and CBS News. Margie can be reached at: