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Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Commercial fisheries apprentice program aims to bring young blood to aging industry

Commercial Fisheries Center, URI lead training program

Students in a commercial fisheries apprentice program
Students in a commercial fisheries apprentice program, sponsored by URI and the Commercial Fisheries Center of Rhode Island, learn to operate a boat conveyor and short fish. (Photo by Mitch Hatzipetro)

Jared Leblanc gets an adrenalin rush watching Deadliest Catch, the Discovery Channel television program showcasing commercial fishermen in Alaska capturing king crab in the challenging waters of the Bering Sea. He likes the danger involved, the open stern of the boat, and the hands-on work.

It’s the kind of career he has envisioned himself undertaking when the right opportunity presented itself. And now it has.

The 25-year-old resident of Webster, Mass., is one of 15 people from throughout southern New England enrolled in a month-long commercial fishing apprentice program sponsored by the Commercial Fisheries Center of Rhode Island and the University of Rhode Island.


The participants are spending four weeks learning such topics as boat safety and navigation, net mending, fish identification, engine maintenance, first aid and the operation of commercial vessels engaged in scalloping, lobstering, trawling and gillnetting.

“The training has been amazing, especially the safety training,” said Leblanc. “I know I’ll survive and my boat will, too. I love the hands-on work, learning new stuff, being on boats, building partnerships, and making new friends.”

According to Fred Mattera, executive director of the Commercial Fisheries Center, which is based at URI’s East Farm, many commercial fishing vessels are struggling to find crew members willing to work hard, go to sea for days at a time, and pursue a career in the fishing industry.

“The fleet is full of gray beards,” he said. “We don’t have the youth anymore; we need an infusion of youth. It’s a young man’s game because it’s a very physical job. There’s good money to be made, but the captains can’t get a crew.”

So Mattera obtained funding from the Real Jobs RI program of the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training to launch a commercial fisheries apprentice program. 

With the exception of Alaska, it’s the first such program in the nation, and Mattera has already received inquiries from other coastal states interested in launching a similar program.

Every participant in the program receives $15 cash for lunch every day, $350 worth of fishing gear, and a $1,000 stipend for completing the program. All will likely have a job on a local fishing vessel by the end of the month.

Mitch Hatzipetro, a URI fisheries scientist who is co-teaching the course with Mattera and others, said that none of the students in the program – all between the ages of 19 and 34 – has extensive fishing experience, but all have demonstrated a strong interest in a fishing career.

“We’ve had fishermen come in and look at the students as they’re working and immediately offer them jobs,” Hatzipetro said during a net-mending lesson. “There’s a great need for people who can mend a net and do everything else that goes with the job.”

Kenneth Poirier of Glocester, the youngest member of the class, enjoyed fishing with his father as a kid, “but I never imagined I could do it as a real job,” he said.

“I like the hard work, and that no two days are the same,” added Poirier, who hopes to eventually work on a scallop boat. “And I love the hands-on work. I learn best when it’s hands-on.”

Mattera said that one of the challenges boat owners face in hiring inexperienced crew members is that half of them get seasick and don’t want to return after the first trip.

“That’s why we’re putting them on vessels and taking them to sea prior to them looking for a job on a boat,” he said. “By then they’ve overcome their sickness and are capable of going to sea.

“I’m hoping that in 5 to 7 years, the guys in this class are going to be the captains and boat owners who will take over and sustain this tradition of fishing in Rhode Island,” Mattera concluded.