More than 50 percent of all workers are self-employed, among
the highest proportion in the workforce.
Many jobs require strenuous work and long hours and provide
only seasonal employment.
Employment is projected to decline, due to the depletion of
fish stocks and new Federal and State laws restricting both
commercial and recreational fishing.
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
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
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
often electronic navigational equipment such as autopilots, loran
systems, and satellite navigation systems. Ships also use radar
to avoid obstacles and utilize depth sounders to indicate the
water depth and possible presence of marine life between the vessel
and sea bottom. 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. Upon returning to port, the
captain arranges for the sale of the catch—directly to buyers
or through a fish auction—and ensures that each crew member receives
the prearranged portion of adjusted net proceeds from the sale
of the catch. Some captains have begun buying and selling fish
via the Internet, and as electronic commerce grows as a method
of finding buyers for fresh catch, more captains may use computers.
The first mate—the captain’s assistant, who must be familiar
with navigation requirements and the operation of all electronic
equipment—assumes control of the vessel when the captain is off
duty. Duty shifts, called watches, usually last 6 hours. The mate’s
regular duty, 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 boatswain
directs the deckhands to load equipment and supplies, either by
hand or with hoisting equipment, and to untie lines from other
boats and the dock. 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 pollock, 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. Upon return to port, they secure the vessel’s lines to
and from the docks and other vessels. 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 full-time and many part-time 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. Crews are small—usually, only one or two people
collaborate on all aspects of the fishing operation, which may
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 having an outboard motor, from rowboats, or by wading or
seining 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, the 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.
Divers are affected by murky water and unexpected shifts in underwater
currents. In relatively busy fisheries, smaller boats have to
take care not to be hit by larger vessels.
Fishers and fishing vessel operators work under some of the most
hazardous conditions of any occupation, and often help is not
readily available when injuries occur. Treatment for any serious
injuries may have to await transfer to a hospital. The crew must
be on guard against the danger of injury from malfunctioning fishing
gear, entanglement in fishing nets and gear, slippery decks resulting
from fish-processing operations, ice formation in the winter,
or being swept overboard—a fearsome situation. Malfunctioning
navigation or communication equipment may lead to collisions or
shipwrecks. Divers must guard against entanglement of air lines,
malfunction of scuba equipment, decompression problems, and attacks
by predatory fish.
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 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.
Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
Fishers usually acquire their occupational skills on the job,
many as members of families involved in fishing activities. No
formal academic requirements exist. Operators of large commercial
fishing vessels are required to complete a Coast Guard-approved
training course. Students can expedite their entrance into these
occupations by enrolling in 2-year vocational-technical programs
offered by secondary schools. In addition, some community colleges
and universities offer fishery technology and related programs
that include courses in seamanship, vessel operations, marine
safety, navigation, vessel repair and maintenance, health emergencies,
and fishing gear technology. Courses include hands-on experience.
Secondary and postsecondary programs are normally offered in or
near coastal areas.
Experienced fishers may find short-term workshops offered through
various postsecondary institutions especially useful. These programs
provide a good working knowledge of electronic equipment used
in navigation and communication and offer information on the latest
improvements in fishing gear.
Captains and mates on large fishing vessels of at least 200 gross
tons must be licensed. Captains of sportfishing boats used for
charter, regardless of the boats’ size, must also be licensed.
Crew members on certain fish-processing vessels may need a merchant
mariner’s document. The U.S. Coast Guard issues these documents
and licenses to individuals who meet the stipulated health, physical,
and academic requirements. (For information about merchant marine
occupations, see the section on water transportation occupations
elsewhere in the Handbook.)
Fishers must be in good health and possess physical strength.
Good coordination, mechanical aptitude, and the ability to work
under difficult or dangerous conditions are necessary to operate,
maintain, and repair equipment and fishing gear. Fishers need
stamina to work long hours at sea, often under difficult conditions.
On large vessels, they must be able to work as members of a team.
Fishers must be patient, yet always alert, to overcome the boredom
of long watches when they are not engaged in fishing operations.
The ability to assume any deckhand’s functions on short notice
is important. As supervisors, mates must be able to assume all
duties, including the captain’s, when necessary. The captain must
be highly experienced, mature, and decisive and also must possess
the business skills needed to run business operations.
On fishing vessels, most fishers begin as deckhands. Experienced,
reliable deckhands who display supervisory qualities may become
boatswains, who, in turn, may become second mates, first mates,
and, finally, captains. Deckhands who acquire experience and whose
interests are in ship engineering—the maintenance and repair of
ship engines and equipment—can eventually become licensed chief
engineers on large commercial vessels after meeting the Coast
Guard’s experience, physical, and academic requirements. Almost
all captains become self-employed, and the overwhelming majority
eventually own, or have an interest in, one or more fishing ships.
Some may choose to run a sport or recreational fishing operation.
When their seagoing days are over, experienced individuals may
work in or, manage, or own stores selling fishing and marine equipment
and supplies. Some captains may assume advisory or administrative
positions in industry trade associations or government offices,
such as harbor development commissions, or in teaching positions
in industry-sponsored workshops or educational institutions. Divers
with experience in fishing operations can enter a commercial diving
activity—for example, repairing ships or maintaining piers and
marinas—usually after the completion of a certified training program
sponsored by an educational institution or industry association.
Fishers and fishing vessel operators held an estimated 38,000
jobs in 2004. One out of two was self-employed. Most fishing takes
place off the coasts, with Alaska, Louisiana, Virginia, California,
and Massachusetts bringing in the greatest volume of fish. While
fishing off the New England coast has declined in recent years
because of restrictions on catching certain species, it still
ranks high in total value of fish caught, according to the National
Marine Fisheries Service.
Employment of fishers and fishing vessel operators is expected
to decline through the year 2014. Some job openings will nevertheless
arise from the need to replace workers who leave the occupation
or retire. Fishers and fishing vessel operators depend on the
natural ability of fish stocks to replenish themselves through
growth and reproduction, as well as on governmental regulation
to promote replenishment of fisheries. Many operations are currently
at or beyond the maximum sustainable yield, partially because
of habitat destruction, and the number of workers who can earn
an adequate income from fishing is expected to decline. Many fishers
and fishing vessel operators leave the occupation because of the
strenuous and hazardous nature of the job and the lack of steady,
The use of sophisticated electronic equipment for navigation,
for communication, and for locating fish has raised the efficiency
of finding fish stocks. Also, improvements in fishing gear and
the use of highly automated floating processors, where the catch
is processed aboard the vessel, have greatly increased fish hauls.
In many areas, particularly the North Atlantic and Pacific Northwest,
damage to spawning grounds and excess fish harvesting capacity
have adversely affected the stock of fish and, consequently, the
employment opportunities for fishers. Some fisheries councils
have issued various types of restrictions on harvesting, to allow
stocks of fish and shellfish to naturally replenish, thereby idling
many fishers. In addition, low prices for some species and rising
seafood imports are adversely affecting fishing income and also
causing some fishers to leave the industry. Fishers are also facing
competition from farm-raised fish. Sportfishing boats, however,
will continue to provide some job opportunities.
Governmental efforts to replenish stocks are having some positive
results, which should increase the stock of fish in the future.
Furthermore, efforts by private fishers’ associations on the West
Coast to increase government monitoring of the fisheries may help
significantly to prevent the type of decline in fish stocks found
in waters off the East Coast. Nevertheless, fewer fishers and
fishing vessel operators are expected to make their living from
the Nation’s waters in the years ahead.
Based on limited information, the majority of full-time wage
and salary fishers earn between $322 and $775 per week. Earnings
of fishers and fishing vessel operators normally are highest in
the summer and fall—when demand for services peaks and environmental
conditions are favorable—and lowest during the winter. Many full-time
and most part-time workers supplement their income by working
in other activities during the off-season. For example, fishers
may work in seafood-processing plants, in establishments selling
fishing and marine equipment, in construction, or in a number
of unrelated seasonal occupations.
Earnings of fishers vary widely, depending upon their position,
their ownership percentage of the vessel, the size of their ship,
and the amount and value of the catch. The costs of the fishing
operation—the physical aspects of operating the ship, such as
the fuel costs, repair and maintenance of gear and equipment,
and the crew’s supplies—are deducted from the sale of the catch.
Net proceeds are distributed among the crew members in accordance
with a prearranged percentage. Generally, the ship’s owner—usually
its captain—receives half of the net proceeds. From this amount,
the owner pays for depreciation, maintenance and repair, and replacement
and insurance costs of the ship and its equipment; the money that
remains is the owner’s profit.
Information on licensing of fishing vessel captains and mates
and on requirements for merchant mariner documentation is available
from the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Inspection Office or Marine Safety
Office in your State. Or contact either of the following agencies: