Nature of the Work
Fishers and fishing vessel operators catch and trap various types of marine life for human consumption, animal feed, bait, and other uses.
Fishing hundreds of miles from shore with commercial fishing vessels—large boats capable of hauling a catch of tens of thousands of pounds of fish—requires a crew that includes a captain, or skipper, a first mate and sometimes a second mate, a boatswain (called a deckboss on some smaller boats), and deckhands with specialized skills.
The fishing boat captain plans and oversees the fishing operation, the fish to be sought, the location of the best fishing grounds, the method of capture, the duration of the trip, and the sale of the catch.
The captain ensures that the fishing vessel is seaworthy; oversees the purchase of supplies, gear, and equipment, such as fuel, netting, and cables; obtains the required fishing permits and licenses; and hires qualified crew members and assigns their duties. The captain plots the vessel’s course using compasses, charts, and electronic navigational equipment, such as loran systems or GPS navigation systems. Ships also use radar and sonar to avoid obstacles above and below the water and to detect fish. Sophisticated tracking technology allows captains to better locate and analyze schools of fish. The captain directs the fishing operation through the officers’ actions and records daily activities in the ship’s log. In port, the captain sells the catch to wholesalers, food processors, or through a fish auction and ensures that each crew member receives the prearranged portion of the proceeds. Captains increasingly use the Internet to bypass processors and sell fish directly to consumers, grocery stores, and restaurants often even before they return to port.
The first mate is the captain’s assistant and assumes control of the vessel when the captain is off duty. Duty shifts, called watches, usually last 6 hours. In this role, the first mate must be familiar with navigation requirements and the operation of all electronic equipment. The mate’s regular duty though, with the help of the boatswain and under the captain’s oversight, is to direct the fishing operations and sailing responsibilities of the deckhands, including the operation, maintenance, and repair of the vessel and the gathering, preservation, stowing, and unloading of the catch.
The boatswain, a highly experienced deckhand with supervisory responsibilities, directs the deckhands as they carry out the sailing and fishing operations. Before departure, the deckhands load equipment and supplies. When necessary, boatswains repair fishing gear, equipment, nets, and accessories. They operate the fishing gear, letting out and pulling in nets and lines, and extract the catch, such as cod, flounder, and tuna, from the nets or the lines’ hooks. Deckhands use dip nets to prevent the escape of small fish and gaffs to facilitate the landing of large fish. They then wash, salt, ice, and stow away the catch. Deckhands also must ensure that decks are clear and clean at all times and that the vessel’s engines and equipment are kept in good working order. Unless “lumpers” (laborers or longshore workers) are hired, the deckhands unload the catch.
Large fishing vessels that operate in deep water generally have technologically advanced equipment, and some may have facilities on board where the fish are processed and prepared for sale. Such vessels are equipped for long stays at sea and can perform the work of several smaller boats.
Some fishers work on small boats in relatively shallow waters, often in sight of land. Navigation and communication needs are vital and constant for almost all types of boats. On these small boats crews usually are small, often only one or two, who work on all aspects of the fishing operation. Their work might include placing gill nets across the mouths of rivers or inlets, entrapment nets in bays and lakes, or pots and traps for fish or shellfish such as lobsters and crabs. Dredges and scrapes are sometimes used to gather shellfish such as oysters and scallops. A very small proportion of commercial fishing is conducted as diving operations. Depending upon the water’s depth, divers wearing regulation diving suits with an umbilical (air line) or a scuba outfit and equipment use spears to catch fish and use nets and other equipment to gather shellfish, coral, sea urchins, abalone, and sponges. In very shallow waters, fish are caught from small boats with an outboard motor, from rowboats, or by wading from shore. Fishers use a wide variety of hand-operated equipment, for example, nets, tongs, rakes, hoes, hooks, and shovels, to gather fish and shellfish; catch amphibians and reptiles such as frogs and turtles; and harvest marine vegetation such as Irish moss and kelp.
Although most fishers are involved in commercial fishing, some captains and deckhands use their expertise in fishing for sport or recreational purposes. For this type of fishing, a group of people charter a fishing vessel with a captain, and possibly several deckhands, for periods ranging from several hours to a number of days and embark upon sportfishing, socializing, and relaxation.
Fishing operations are conducted under various environmental conditions, depending on the region of the country and the kind of species sought. Storms, fog, and wind may hamper fishing vessels or cause them to suspend fishing operations and return to port. In relatively busy fisheries, boats have to take care to avoid collisions.
Fishers and fishing vessel operators work under some of the most hazardous conditions of any occupation, and transportation to a hospital or doctor is often not readily available when injuries occur. The crew must be on guard against the danger of injury from malfunctioning fishing gear, entanglement in fishing nets and gear, slippery decks, ice formation in the winter, or being swept overboard by a wave. Malfunctioning navigation or communication equipment may lead to collisions or shipwrecks.
Fishers and fishing vessel operators face strenuous outdoor work and long hours. Commercial fishing trips may require a stay of several weeks or even months hundreds of miles away from one’s home port. The pace of work may vary, but even during travel between the home port and the fishing grounds, deckhands on smaller boats try to finish their cleaning and maintenance duties so that there are no chores remaining to be done at port. However, lookout watches are a regular responsibility, and crew members must be prepared to stand watch at prearranged times of the day or night. Although fishing gear has improved, and operations have become more mechanized, netting and processing fish are strenuous activities. Newer vessels have improved living quarters and amenities such as television and shower stalls, but crews still experience the aggravations of confined quarters, continuous close personal contact, and the absence of family.