March 19, 2019

Congress should step up for Gloucester's young fishermen

Originally published by The Gloucester Daily Times.

Vito Giacalone’s family has been doing this for a long time. His grandpa was a fisherman, first in Sicily and then in Gloucester. His dad was a fisherman right out of high school. His seven uncles all fished, too. They all told Vito the stories of their trade — that Gloucester fishermen are the best around, make their own nets, and fish in any weather.

Vito was hooked. He got into the fishing industry as soon as he could, and so did his sons after him.

Vito talks about growing up in Gloucester the same way almost everyone there does: you look up to the local fishermen as a kid and then become one as an adult. But in the past couple decades, that’s changed.

Bars and coffee shops that used to be packed with fishermen coming in or going out at 4 a.m. are now left nearly empty. Fewer kids from Gloucester are fishing than at any time in recent memory. Over the last 10 years there has been a 75 percent reduction in groundfishing vessels because of the large reduction in annual catch limits. In Alaska, a state where fishing is as important to the economy as ours, so few young people have started careers in commercial fishing since 1980 that the average age of a commercial fishery permit-holder has jumped from 40 to 50.

That’s not because the fish aren’t out there to catch; according to NOAA, the number of overfished stocks is at an all time low in the United States right now. The real problem is that there’s nobody new to catch them. To put it in Vito’s terms: “The only thing missing from this fishery is young blood.”

In economies like Gloucester’s, where a third of the town earns a paycheck in commercial fishing, this is a big problem. Gloucester has been a fishing town since 1621, but that won’t last if we can’t get young people into the industry. So why are fewer young people getting involved in the fishing business?

Because — like so many industries across the country — there are higher entry costs, fewer permits, and a consolidation of ownership in local fishing. These trends have made it harder to earn a living as a fisherman and have forced young people to look elsewhere.

That’s why Congress needs to pass The Young Fisherman’s Development Act. The bipartisan bill, which I first introduced last Congress and just reintroduced this month, would invest $2 million a year into the two things young fishermen need above all else: training and demand.

For training, the bill would create apprenticeships that connect young fishermen with retiring fishermen and vessel owners — folks like Vito, who can pass on generations of knowledge and give young folks a first job in the industry. The bill would also fund education programs to teach young fishermen profitable, sustainable fishing practices that keep the environment safe and fisheries full.

Our other focus is demand. Consumers across the country already know Florida has the best orange juice — they should know Gloucester has the best fish. That’s why we’ve helped the city of Gloucester build upon its “Gloucester Fresh” brand success by solidifying federal resources to help Gloucester showcase to consumers the benefits of local, underused species.

“Gloucester Fresh” is the first step toward making that happen, subtly communicating to diners and shoppers that the fish they’re buying is healthy, sustainable, and locally caught. State and local leaders deserve the credit here: Mayor Theken has done a great job building the brand, and New England businesses like The Ninety-Nine have already caught on. Other restaurants will likely follow their lead, driving demand for fish caught by Gloucester’s fishermen.

These steps may sound small, but they matter for Gloucester. Fishing is a source of pride for this community, and it’s a source of prosperity for families like Vito’s who call Gloucester home.

The next generation deserves a chance to carry on that legacy. If we pass this bill, they’ll be one step closer to having it.