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Updated: January 15, 2021

Maine helps launch federal program to train next generation of fishermen

Courtesy / Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association Seen here is 11th-generation fisherman Josh Todd, age 19, of Chebeague Island, out on a scallop trip. Todd traveled with the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association to Washington, D.C., a couple of times to advocate for the Young Fishermen’s Development Act.

A Maine-based fishery association has recently played a key role in creating a federal program to promote training for the next generation of commercial fishermen. 

Congress passed the Young Fishermen’s Development Act last month. The bill directs the National Sea Grant Office in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to establish a Young Fishermen's Development Grant Program, which will make matching grants to support local and regional training, education, outreach and technical assistance. The initiatives will focus on seamanship, navigation, electronics and safety; vessel and engine care, maintenance and repair; and sustainable fishing practices. 

“If you expose Maine kids to the opportunities that exist in the fishing industry and provide them with some of the knowledge they need to be successful, you’re going to get some fine fishermen,” Ben Martens, executive director of Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, said in a news release.

“This work to get young folks interested in commercial fishing has never been more important and I applaud the Maine delegation for making this issue a priority. The resources made available in this bill will help organizations like ours give tomorrow’s fishermen their start on the water.” 

The association is part of a group called the Fishing Community Coalition, which led the initiative.

Currently, there is no single federal program dedicated to training, educating and assisting the next generation of commercial fishermen. But the need is real, due to challenges that include the high cost of entry into fisheries, financial risks and limited entry-level opportunities, making it difficult for young adults to start a career in commercial fishing, according to the coalition.

The bill includes a $2 million annual authorization for six years for program implementation, using money from fines paid by fishermen who have violated fishing rules. 

Grants may not exceed a period of longer than three years, with a maximum grant amount of $200,000 per year

‘Aha!’ moment

The bill was initiated five years ago when young fishermen were excluded from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Development Program, Martens told Mainebiz. 

“We had this ‘Aha!’ moment,” Martens said. “There are a lot of resources available for farmers and ranchers to make sure the next generations have the skills and resources they need to operate in a complicated world. We felt it would be interesting to see if we could take one piece of the young farmers and ranchers program and create something that does the same for young fishermen.”

The money hasn’t yet been included in this year’s budget, he noted.

“We’re working with our congressional delegation to makes sure the money is there,” he said. 

The goal is to allow schools, fishing associations, and communities build their own young fishermen programs that are suited to their regions. 

“What Maine fishermen need could be very different from what the Gulf of Mexico or Alaska fishermen need,” he said. “We didn’t want to be prescriptive. We want to let the creativity and the needs of the different regions drive what the programs look like.”

Stonington-based Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries’ Eastern Maine Skippers Program is an example of such a program. Founded in 2012, the program serves six high schools in coastal communities, providing students with knowledge and skills needed to participate in a co-managed fisheries and working with scientists, fishermen, regulators and industry professionals.

"Through our Eastern Maine Skippers Program, we at the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries recognize that for young fishermen to succeed in their businesses, they need to know more than just how to catch fish, and this federal legislation will enable training for other important skills that will help the industry to be sustained and coastal fishing communities to thrive,” said Paul Anderson, the center’s executive director.

Similar programs exist in other states, Martens said.

“The young skippers program has shown the value of teaching business skills and helping some of those who have decided they want to be lobstermen to make sure they have the right pieces at their disposal when it comes to science and regulations and running a business,” Martens said. “There’s a real need. It’s about building a strong next generation of fishermen and fishing leaders and businesses.”

The average age of the Maine fisherman is over 50, he noted.

“We need to create ways to pass down knowledge, pass down education, and pass down opportunity,” he said. “$2 million doesn’t go very far, but I’m hopeful that we start to see great innovative ideas around how we empower this next generation. As an organization, we’re doing a lot of work to make sure the fish stocks are in good shape and to protect working waterfront and access. We need to make sure the fishermen  are there to take advantage of it.”

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