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In a surging seafood industry, boat captains struggle to find workers

With unemployment in the U.S. at a historical low, experts say fewer young people are making their way north to make fishing their full-time job.
In a surging seafood industry, boat captains struggle to find workers
Posted at 2:58 PM, Oct 09, 2023

America loves its reality TV fishing shows like Discovery's "Deadliest Catch" and National Geographic's "Wicked Tuna." But in reality, it's an industry plagued by not having enough workers.

"It's hard to find people. I mean, that's just the challenge," said boat captain Darren Platt. "There's not a whole lot of experience. There's not enough experienced people out there to fully be employed in the fleet."

In Alaska, Platt captains the salmon fishing boat Agnes Sabine. He could use some help, but with record low unemployment in the lower 48 states, fewer young people are making their way north to Kodiak to make fishing their full-time job.

"We need to continuously bring in people from outside to come up and work," Platt said. "And it's usually college students or young folks looking for an adventure, but not career fishermen."

SEE MORE: Shrimping in the Midwest: A sustainable solution for America's seafood

But it's not only the robust job market in the mainland that's affecting the number of people who are willing to take on this often difficult, dangerous, and economically unpredictable profession. Experts say the decreasing number of fish to catch — likely due to warming waters — is also adding to the uncertainty.

This summer, the U.S. Commerce Department announced it was developing a five-year strategy to support the $165 billion seafood industry, noting what it calls a "significant labor shortage." About $2 million in federal money is earmarked for training the next generation of fishers, not just in Alaska, but also in the Great Lakes region, New England, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Pacific Northwest.

SEE MORE: Study finds high levels of 'forever chemicals' in freshwater fish

Deckhand Juan Zuniga was lured from Florida to Alaska to work by the prospects of quick pay and a sense of adventure.

"I mean, this is a pretty far place from where I live, so a very big step out of my comfort zone," said Zuniga. "If you're coming out here, you gotta understand that you're coming out here to learn."

At just 20 years old, Lane Bolich is an apprentice captain on the Harmony, after spending two years as a deckhand on a family friend's boat. He hopes to learn the ropes so he can one day influence others looking to enter the profession.

"I want to learn every in and out of captaining and become really good at it," he said. "So that eventually, one day, I'll be able to teach it to somebody else."

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