Getting to know the fishermen and crabbers of the Columbia-Pacific region is a lesson in respect for tradition, the environment and the future. No one has a better sense for how humanity’s wellbeing is bound up with that of the natural world. This is a major reason why we all should advocate for success in efforts to bring up the next generation of fishermen.
This is a vital and often lucrative occupation — one deeply ingrained in local culture and history — in which job openings have become difficult to fill.
These are some of the key reasons for this ‘graying of the fleet’:
• In a time of near full employment on the coast, fishing competes with industries that offer safer, more comfortable, less seasonal work.
• Most commercial fishing boats are, in effect, small businesses in a time of tighter financing and regulations.
• The costs of gear, permitting, insurance and regulatory compliance all have increased faster than the ex-vessel price of most fisheries products.
• Though still regarded locally as an honorable — in some ways even prestigious — career, commercial fishing gets much bad press. The whole industry is tarnished when word spreads about indiscriminate overfishing by foreign vessels, whale entanglements, and resource-allocation fights like the one that resulted in banning gillnets from the Columbia’s main stem.
• Being a fisherman can entail long hours and sacrifices of family time that a younger generation may be unwilling to accommodate.
Weighted against these factors is fishing timeless appeal to independent-minded entrepreneurs and adventurers. Those who get fishing into their souls and blood can’t imagine a better life than working in close harmony with the ocean and river.
An October 2017 article by John Cappetta in the online magazine Hakai (tinyurl.com/Teach-Kids-to-Fish) provides an eloquent statement about why we all should care about whether fishing survives as a career: The “ultimate goal is to restore and protect coastal ecosystems so people can live off them again. Ethical and engaged fishers are integral to that vision — they’re potential allies in taking the ocean’s pulse.” In other words, smart fishermen take good care of the resources on which they depend, and can help lead all of us on a path toward wise ocean stewardship.
The industry is right to participate in job fairs and start taking other active steps to recruit new fishermen and woman. A new state task force on maritime sector workforce development is a good move, along with normalizing the status of maritime jobs with a formal classification in Oregon’s employment division. Forming community fishing associations like one now getting off the ground in Ilwaco and Chinook is another good way to clear a path for younger fishermen.
Our communities will be wise to support all of this. We must work together with the industry to specifically address each of the factors that discourage a new generation from going to sea.
Fishing has been key to our economy and culture. It will take our full attention to ensure it remains so in the future.
Watch for a story about this in the Nov. 29 Chinook Observer.