URI, fishing fleet partner for new apprenticeship program to boost worker ranks

URI, fishing fleet partner for new apprenticeship program to boost worker ranks

The Westerly Sun

POINT JUDITH — With fewer men and women entering the commercial fishery and trained crews becoming more difficult to find, the local fishing industry is offering a summer apprenticeship program to encourage young people to enter the business.

The 20-day pilot program, which begins July 1, is a joint initiative of the University of Rhode Island and the Commercial Fisheries Center of Rhode Island, a nonprofit group representing nine fishing organizations in Rhode Island. The program is funded by a $100,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Barbara Somers, a research associate at URI’s Department of Fisheries, Animal and Veterinary Science, has worked on collaborative projects with Point Judith fishermen, including the new apprenticeship program.

“It was characterized as trying to support the fishing industry and create new jobs for students, and also opportunities for existing businesses in the port that are doing some of the training,” she said.

Fred Mattera is a former Point Judith commercial fisherman who sold his boat in 2012 and now owns a marine safety training company. Mattera helped start the apprenticeship program and is one of the instructors.

“I go aboard the vessels and inspect all of their safety equipment and then teach the crews how to abandon ship, how to fight fires, how to retrieve somebody if there’s a man overboard,” he said. “I constantly do that, so I get to work with the captains and the crews on probably 75 percent of the vessels in the port. And I started to realize myself that, boy, there are no young people anymore. We certainly do need that. The complaining that used to be about management has now turned into crews. ‘I can’t go fishing. I’m stuck at the dock. Do you know anybody?’”

The recruitment effort has already begun, and its goal this year is 12 apprentices. Somers said the program was aiming at high school seniors who don’t have immediate college plans.

“The industry wants to create a cadre of capable crew members who have been trained effectively in safety and everything else, and keep them for a while,” she said. “This is somebody who wants to do this, even if it’s just to try it for a few years and then maybe go to school, somebody who’s going to commit to it and stick with it as a job.”

Some of the training in areas such as fish-stock assessment will take place at URI, but most of it will be on fishing boats and at fishing-related businesses. Somers said the recruits would probably be taken out on a vessel on their very first day, to determine who might be prone to seasickness.

“We’re going to give them an overview of fisheries as a business, and then in the afternoon, I propose to take them out on our URI research vessel,” she said. “This way we find out right away who’s been on a boat, who hasn’t, how they’re going to feel — expose them to that first, because some of these kids may have never been on a boat.”

Meals and equipment will be provided, and apprentices who complete the program will receive $1,000 stipends and, possibly, fishing jobs.

“After the class is over, we’re having a networking event with captains in Point Judith to try and match some of them up as far as jobs,” Somers said. “Next year, the Commercial Fisheries Center got money from Real Jobs Rhode Island, [Gov. Gina Raimondo’s job-training program] and they’ve committed to giving them money to run this program again, on a larger scale, and create jobs for other Rhode Islanders.”

Encouraging young people to enter an occupation that can be physically demanding and even dangerous is nevertheless a worthwhile endeavor, because well-trained commercial fishermen can stay safe and also be financially successful.

“Minimum $60,000 plus,” Mattera said. “You probably end up with six to eight weeks a year. You work hard — four, five, six days in a row, but then you may take three or four in the winter .... You get time to yourself. You can take trips and somebody takes your place, so there is that flexibility that’s built into this. It’s not 50 weeks a year, punching in at 8, going home at 4.”

When the apprentices have completed the program, they will be well-versed in the many skills commercial fishing crews need, including safety, engine repair, navigation, and even how to tie knots.

Mattera said he hoped the newly trained crews would enhance the overall safety of the Point Judith fleet.

“I hope it puts some pressure on the already existing crew members that still haven’t learned how to tie knots or some of the navigation skills, and it will force them to maybe start to pay attention and learn more,” he said.

People interested in learning more about the program can log onto the Commercial Fisheries Center website at http://cfcri.com/CFAPInfoDocumentnew%202.pdf.




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