Alaska fishermen offer berths to wannabe deckhands

SITKA, Alaska (AP) — Cathryn Klusmeier comes from a long line of Arkansans. Hers is not a family of fishermen, and her childhood in the landlocked state afforded little time on the ocean.

After moving to Sitka, however, she snagged a job on Eric Jordan’s F/V I Gotta in 2014, and quickly learned the ins and outs of Jordan’s family trolling operation, becoming one of an increasingly rare breed of young people able to break into commercial fishing in Alaska.

Four years later, Klusmeier still works with Jordan, who, inspired by her success, wants to introduce other young people to the industry. Over the past three years, Klusmeier has teamed with Jordan to take over 40 trainees out fishing for a few days or a week at a time with Klusmeier teaching them the ropes, just as Jordan taught her when she first set foot on the F/V I Gotta.

It doesn’t matter if you have next to no experience fishing, Klusmeier said, if you have an open mind and a desire to learn, there’s a spot for you in the industry.

She points to her own story as proof.

“Four years ago, I just got a job with Eric on a boat,” she said. “I came, I had no experience in fishing, and then learned how to fish … I was a person who had no background in any of this, but had a willingness to learn.”

In 2017, Jordan partnered with the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association to formalize his efforts encouraging other young folk to carve a path like Klusmeier’s.

The result is the Crewmember Apprenticeship Program, which will take on its first formal crop of apprentices this summer. The program aims to provide young adults, particularly those from Sitka, with an understanding of the commercial fishing lifestyle, as well as the hard skills necessary to succeed in the field.

“The future of our fisheries is dependent on young fishermen learning to love and care for the fish we harvest and the habitat essential to their well-being,” Jordan said in a statement. “Our generation’s legacy will be defined how we, as Alaskan fishermen, rebuilt and enhanced our fisheries, and how we mentored the next generation.”

Through the new program, ALFA will provide training for both the apprentices and the skippers committed to mentoring them prior to sending the teams out to sea, explained Alyssa Russell, the organization’s outreach and communications manager. The program will offer short-term apprenticeships lasting from one day to one week, and long-term apprenticeships lasting from one week to several months.

The apprenticeship program is supported, in part, by a $70,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to build up the program in Sitka and, down the line, support similar apprenticeships in other Alaskan communities.

Russell expects five to ten skippers, including Jordan, and some ten apprentice deckhands to participate in the program this year, and expressed hope that a significant portion of the trainees will come from the community of Sitka itself.

Terry Perensovich, a skiff fisherman, will be one of the local mentors in the 2018 season. He said he has informally introduced four young people to his style of fishing over the past two years, and has been pleased at the interest they have shown.

In Alaska, where the average age of fishermen is over 50, Perensovich believes it is crucial to pass on his knowledge to the next generation. He said he was motivated to take younger deckhands on board by the “issue of the graying of the fleet,” explaining that the industry had been good to him and he wanted that “continuum for the next generation of fishing individuals.”

Of the four individuals Perensovich has trained, none is currently pursuing a fishing career. One went back to school, and is now working in journalism. Another moved out of town, but may come back this spring.

This didn’t bother Perensovich, however; he expressed confidence that their time spent fishing in Sitka would serve them well whatever path they followed. They could add the apprenticeship to their resume, he said, and chalk the stint up to “life experience.”

“I don’t expect everyone that goes fishing to turn that into a career,” he said. “They can perhaps share their experience with other younger people who might be curious…It’s probably like anything: people need to try it before they decide.”

Russell seconded Persensovich’s sentiment, explaining that even if participants go on to drastically different careers, they’ve gained an appreciation for the industry that allows them to better understand the issues commercial fishermen face in Alaska.

“We kind of call it, ‘creating advocates,'” she said. “They’re going to carry that experience with them for the rest of their life, and that … understanding is one of the most important things.”

She added that, should apprentices decide to stay in the industry, having even a little experience under their belts and having “hard fishing skills” makes them more likely to secure a job moving forward.

“They can list off all of these things that they’ve learned just from this week that makes them a more hirable candidate for another fishing boat,” she said.

One of the reasons these apprenticeships are valuable, Klusmeier explained, is that the significant hurdles to entering the industry leave few inroads for people without family ties to fishing.

When asked about the greatest obstacle, her answer was quick and clear: “Money. Its finances. Costs of permits, costs of boats are just astronomically high. It’s just sort of astounding how much money is required to get into any of these fisheries.”

She recalled sitting next to a 19-year-old at the Alaska Young Fishermen’s Summit who had racked up more than $200,000 in boat and permit loans by his second season fishing in Bristol Bay.

“I don’t envy you. I do not want to be in your position,” Klusmeier remembered thinking at the time. “Everything has to go right for him.”

She extolled the importance of getting experience fishing, testing the waters, before plunging into an industry that can impose financial burdens.

“People can come onto boats, see what it’s like, figure out a way to become a part of these industries before they take on the financial responsibilities,” she said.

Russell expressed hope that ALFA’s apprenticeship program will offer a clear path to those interested in commercial fishing, thus increasing the number of young industry professionals, and countering the graying of the fleet. She pointing to comparable fledgling programs elsewhere, such as a partnership between Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation and Bristol Bay schools, and a deckhand apprentice program at San Diego’s Scripps Institute of Oceanography, as evidence that there’s demand for such experience-based training. She said ALFA plans to use this summer to develop a toolkit for other communities throughout the state to replicate the apprentice program as soon as next year.

As Klusmeier said, there’s little time to waste: “The need is that people are really concerned about the graying of the fleet … Who is the next generation of people in these fisheries?”

ALFA is currently soliciting applications for the 2018 season. Forms can be found at alfafish.org/apprenticeship and are due on March 1.

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