A Weekend of Training, a Life on the Sea
By Doreen Leggett
Maria Marelli, a bubbly bartender, has worked on several shellfish farms and is looking to get on a commercial fishing vessel, so when the call came at 4 a.m. she picked up.
But when the captain asked if she wanted to go out that day, she said no. She was attending the Fishermen Training program she had told him about.
“Awesome,” was his response.
Marelli told her story on a recent sunny Saturday at the Fishermen’s Alliance, in the barn with eight other aspiring fishermen for the beginning of an intensive two-day course. She learned about a host of fisheries from a half-dozen fishermen, skills needed on deck, as well as found herself jumping into the cool, blue-grey water of Stage Harbor for marine safety training.
The free training, supported by a grant from National Fisheries and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF), was the second the Fishermen’s Alliance has held and is focused on connecting those interested in a career in the commercial fisheries with a growing number of jobs.
“Many local captains are looking for crew and that number continues to increase,” said Stephanie Sykes, program and outreach coordinator for the Fishermen’s Alliance, who organized the training.
Captains have been lobbying for a training program for years. And it isn’t just positions on the back of the boat that are unfilled. Captains are putting off substantial investments.
“I’ve have been thinking about buying a second boat,” said Captain Chris King, who also owns and runs a diversified seafood retail and wholesale business. “It’s tough to find a skipper and crew to commit. The whole stick in the spokes is the captain and crew.”
To help sustain a major economic driver of the Cape’s Blue Economy, the Fishermen’s Alliance has launched a variety of programs. In addition to training, online curriculum will be available early next year, more time at sea is in the works, and Sykes has become a one-woman job referral service, connecting aspiring crew with captains.
NFWF support also made it possible for a class of sophomores and seniors in the Marine Services program at Cape Cod Technical High School to get aboard a lobster and scallop boat in Wychmere Harbor.
“Some of our fishermen members went through the commercial fishing program at Cape Cod Tech,” Sykes said. “The program was phased out, but it is still a promising career and the instructors of the Marine Services program have been very supportive of our efforts to introduce the next generation to the possibility of working in the industry.”
Fielding DeWitt, 18, is a Tech student who also attended the second day of training, focused on safety, run by Fathom Resources for the Fishermen’s Alliance.
He was working on Saturday, lobstering for close to 16 hours. He likes to keep his Sundays free, but Sean and Mark Leach, his bosses on the boat, emphasis the importance of safety, so he was happy to attend.
The morning was filled with learning various distress signals, including radio and flares, as well as how to fight fires.
Before they headed to Stage Harbor for the in-water training, the group practiced trying on survival suits at the office. The goal was to get them on under a minute.
Another fisherman, Mike Van Hoose, was the rockstar of the group, getting the red suit that will save your life on in 30 seconds.
Both of the captains DeWitt and Van Hoose work for were there as instructors on the first day.
Mark Leach, who has been fishing for more than 45 years, spoke about longlining for groundfish when cod was abundant before transitioning to the lobster industry about 30 years ago.
Grabbing one of the pots he brought, Leach walked the group through what to expect on a lobster boat.
Al Cestaro has also been fishing for most of his life.
“I don’t think there is a commercial fishery I haven’t participated in,” he said.
Among other things, he runs a surf clam boat out of the ports of Dennis and Orleans.
Fishermen Training provided basic knowledge to help crew succeed, but captains said some things were more important than experience.
“Some of the best crew I ever had had no experience,” Captain Greg Connors said, adding with a laugh, “They are devoid of bad habits.”
Two of his former crew members now own their own boats and are successful captains.
“They are awesome,” Connors said.
All agreed it was attitude that makes the difference, like Fielding going the extra mile on Sunday. The captains had a short list of what would help crew get on a captain’s good side. Cestaro rattled off a few:
Be early -- 15 minutes early is on time. Everything should be ready to go when a captain gets there. Bring him a cup of coffee. Don’t be first off a boat. Don’t ask when you’ll be home.
Even a great attitude can’t get some people past the long hours and toughness of the job.
Connors, captain of the Constance Sea, was looking for more crew last summer. He had try-outs; one guy didn’t last long at all, the other stayed for about a month.
“It’s mostly endurance and attitude,” he said.
He brought the gear he fishes with - gillnets, which are anchored and stand up on the bottom of the ocean a bit like a fence.
Connors explained how they work, while the class examined the two nets of different mesh sizes. Different sizes are for targeting different species, and depending on the size of the mesh, some fish are caught by their gills while others swim through. The nets can get tangled up, so it’s usually the new person’s job to “flake” or separate.
“Can’t find the edge, usually the crew guys do this,” he said to laughter as he tried to take one of the colorful nets out of the bag.
When he spoke to the Tech students, Sean Leach echoed fellow captains: If you work hard your pay is commensurate.
“We profit share on our boats,” said Sean Leach. “We pay livable wages. That’s how my father did it. That’s how I do it. I want (those who work for me) to have fun and be able to have a life.”
Leach gave students a tour of his new boat, from engine room to lobster hold, and said there are opportunities for success in the Cape’s small boat fisheries.
The lobster fishery is doing well, he said, better than past years. Part of that has to do with increased globalization. Prices used to collapse in the winter, now from August to January about 90 percent of the lobsters are shipped abroad.
Sean Leach runs his father’s boat, the Sea Holly, but also recently had his own boat built so he could lobster and diversify into scallops. She is named the Jessica Beth, for Leach’s fiancée, who, in small-world fashion, is a teacher at Tech.
“These boats aren’t cheap. We wouldn’t be building them if we weren’t making money,” he said.
Leach is second-generation, but he knows plenty of successful first-generation fishermen.
“It’s all in how much you want it,” he said.
Jakeob Ambrosini, a sophomore, was impressed by the engine room. He works for the family business, Nauset Fish Market and Lobster Pool in Orleans, and sees a career in fishing.
“I just like the water; I’ve been told it’s in my blood and I don’t mind long hours,” Ambrosini said.
Keegan Doherty, a senior, also is considering a future in fishing. He does mostly rod and reel, bluefish and striped bass.
“It’s the fight,” he said.
Coming out of Marine Tech, students learn a lot about a key requirement for commercial fishing – boat maintenance.
“If something breaks at sea they need to fix it. They can’t come all the way back,” said Kevin Rand, one of the Cape Tech instructors.
Captain Jake Angelo, who started in the industry after graduating from Mass Maritime Academy, had another tale of encouragement.
He was told when he graduated that there was little money in the fisheries. Angelo said that is not the case. He worked on shellfish grants and then entered a lottery to get a commercial shellfish license for the wild fishery.
Angelo has parlayed his success with shellfishing into other fisheries, and has gotten a dealer permit so his business, Barnstable Seafood Company, can sell the shellfish he harvests as well as other products.
Some of the fisheries he has gotten into are open access, meaning they are open to anyone. Other fisheries, like black sea bass, lobster and scallop, are limited access – to enter you need to buy an existing permit.
Several of those in the Fishermen Training program, including Cary Paine, working on two shellfish grants among other jobs, are hoping to follow in Angelo’s footsteps. Since completing program, Paine plans to go fishing on Connors’ boat.
Many fishermen start as crew and save enough money to buy their own boats. On the Cape, crew can be paid anywhere from $150 to $1000 a day.
Training attendees Michelle Donabed, a lawyer, and Brian Patrick Hall, a volunteer fireman and rescue diver who also works for the Oak Bluffs water department, currently work in jobs that provide flexibility and are interested in working on the water. Donabed, of Falmouth, has her recreational lobster license and has worked on a lobster boat out of Scituate.
“I love those 14-hour days more than the 14-hour days in the office,” Donabed said.
The class had a good role model in Ed Janiunas, who worked in international finance in New York, and started his career transition by volunteering for the town of Yarmouth’s shellfish department and taking whatever professional development classes he could. He applied for a grant in Yarmouth and has been steadily growing Sweetheart Creek Oysters since 2017.
“I worked on Wall Street for 27 years,” he said. “I saw the world. Now the world is my oyster.”