More than 50 fishermen, educators and other community members attended the fifth workshop of Resilient Fisheries RI, dubbed “Fostering a New Generation of RI Fishermen,” at the Contemporary Theatre Company in Wakefield Monday.
Sarah Schumann, project coordinator for Resilient Fisheries RI, told the attendees that while the project began last year with a focus on environmental change and uncertainty, it grew to encompass other areas.
“Usually when people think about environmental change, they think about what the fish are doing ... but it’s just as much about people, the fishermen,” she said.
Through roughly 50 interviews conducted in 2016, Schumann said she noticed a trend – the lack of young people in the fishing industry. She demonstrated this through a crowd participation exercise, which showed approximately half of the fishermen on hand were over 50, while only eight were under 40 and four were under 30.
In comments from fishermen, many spoke of the high cost of obtaining licenses and tough regulations, as well as generational gaps. One young lobsterman said the startup costs are often prohibitive for those beginning in the industry. Joe Raposa, a third-generation fisherman, instead asserted “a lot of the younger generation doesn’t know how to work or want to work.”
Josh Bird, who had worked in the corporate world for some time and came back to the fishing industry, spoke of the impact of technology on younger generations. He also said many students are not exposed to fishing and other similar career paths.
“I’ve got a 14-year-old son and it’s hard to have him outside, never mind being out on the water, he’s kind of glued to technology,” he said. “Schools, they don’t really encourage you to do that track. Even when I was in high school in the ’90s, the track was kind of like ‘Oh, well we don’t have any shop classes, we don’t have anything like that.’ It’s almost like a fear mongering thing, where if you don’t jump on board with that stuff now you’re going to get left behind.”
Another issue highlighted was Rhode Island’s licensing rules. John Kourtesis told the crowd he would be training his son to fish.
“If he wanted to buy a boat, he could go to Massachusetts, jump on it, and be the owner and the captain and start his own business,” Kourtesis said. “But in Rhode Island, you can go buy a boat and bring it back to Newport or Point Judith, and you can’t land anything because they license the person in this state, not the boat.
“Since the licensing closed, there’s been less boats there’s been less jobs there’s less everything,” he continued. “How are you going to get new people to come into the fishery when they can’t land anything? He goes and gets a license, he can’t have anything… You need to be able to go quahogging. You need to be able to go scupping. You need to be able to go fluking. That’s pretty much how a lot of us started, and nowadays these kids don’t have that opportunity to go fish on multi different things.”
The workshop also featured a panel with Dave Ghigliotty, vice president of the Rhode Island Shellfishermen’s Association, which runs an internship program for young shellfishermen; Tess Brown Lavoie, co-organizer of the Young Farmer Network; and salmon fisherman Hannah Heimbuch, who is a community fisheries organizer with the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.
After the program, Schumann said she was pleased by the attendance and hoped to create some momentum.
“The presence of those children-of-fishermen signaled hope that if we all work together, we can have a future for this heritage industry in our state,” she said. “And it was not just generational fishermen, but newcomers, as well as policy makers, regulators, educators and many others. All were very encouraging and many expressed a deep desire to move this agenda forward.
“It will take a coordinated effort to make sure that today’s young fishermen have a bright future in the industry and that their ranks are replaced by new young people in a few years’ time. Tonight was a first step in creating that momentum,” she added.