Exploring this Job

If you live on one of the coasts or the Great Lakes, you can try to find summer work on a small fishing boat or at a fishing port. You might at least have the opportunity to go out on a fishing boat; contact a state department of fish and game to learn more about the local fishing industry and about opportunities to meet fishers. If you do not live near the water, you can learn about saltwater fish by working for a pet shop or a city or state aquarium.

After high school, you can look into working for a cold storage facility or cannery in Alaska. Though this factory-line work, called working on the "slime line," won't involve actually going out in a fishing boat, you will get a great sense of the business and will have the opportunity to meet people in the commercial fishing industry.

The Job

Now that large corporate fishing fleets dominate the fishing industry, most fishing is done from large commercial vessels that employ many fishers as crew. The captain plans and oversees the entire fishing operation. He or she decides which fish should be caught, where they will best be found, the method of capture, the duration of the trip, and how the catch will be sold. The captain also makes sure the sailing vessel is in suitable condition and hires and supervises crew members. The first mate is the captain's assistant. He or she must be familiar with navigation requirements and up to date on all the latest electronic devices used on fishing boats. The mate, under the supervision of the captain, oversees the fishing operations and the sailing responsibilities of the deckhands. The boatswain is an experienced deckhand with some supervisory responsibilities. He or she directs the loading of equipment and supplies onto the vessel before it sets sail. The boatswain also operates and repairs much of the fishing gear. The deckhands do much of the actual fishing. Deckhands release and pull in nets and lines and extract the catch from the lines or nets. They wash, salt, ice, and store the fish. Deckhands also make sure that the deck is clean and clear at all times and that the vessel's engines and equipment are in working order.

Fishers are classified according to the type of equipment they use, the type of fish they catch, and where they go to catch them. Fishers work all over the country. Major fishing industries can be found in Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Virginia, Louisiana, Florida, Texas, California, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska. The waters off the coast of the northeastern states are good for lobster and sardine fishing, while fishers in the Gulf States catch shrimp and oysters. Most tuna fishers work off the California coastline. U.S. vessels also travel into the Bering Sea for snow crab, halibut, pollock, and salmon and to the oceans off Africa and China for tuna.

Net fishers are usually deep-sea fishers. They either work alone or as part of a crew, using many types of nets to catch fish. Some boats make only short day runs, while others go for weeks or months at a time, keeping their catches fresh in huge refrigeration units. While small boats may carry a few crew members, large tuna boats can carry as many as 22 and measure more than 200 feet long.

After the boats leave port, they head for the areas of the sea that are known to have fish. Crew members keep track of weather reports and fishing conditions over the radio or the Internet. They scan for schools of fish using sonar and other electronic equipment. When they think they have located a school of fish, they lower the nets. Purse seiners, who mainly catch tuna, use a huge net—often a mile long and hundreds of feet deep. The net is weighted on the bottom and is held vertically by floats attached to the top. A smaller boat called a skiff, driven by a skiff operator, holds one end of the net while the fishing vessel circles around the school to surround it with the net. Once that is done, fishers close the bottom of the net by retracting steel cables that act like a drawstring, then pull in the net and haul the catch on board.

Net fishers are responsible for readying and repairing nets while the boat is moving to and from the fishing waters. The catch is often so heavy that they must use hydraulic pumps and conveyor belts to haul it in. Depending on the captain's orders, fish may be cleaned and sorted before or after returning to shore. Large tuna boats that stay at sea for many weeks catch as many as 1,200 tons of fish, which the fishers usually turn over to canneries upon their return.

Line fishers catch fish with poles, hooks, and lines. They work alone or in crews. They lay out lines and attach hooks, bait, and other equipment, depending on the type of fish they plan to catch. This process can take several hours. They then lower these lines into the water. To haul catches on board they use reels, winches, or their bare hands. They take the fish off the hooks, sometimes stunning them first by hitting them with clubs. They store their catch in the boat's hold or in boxes packed with ice. Some of these fishers use a gaff—a long pole with a hook on the end—to help them catch fish and bring them aboard. Line fishers may also clean fish while their vessel heads to shore.

Because ships usually do not return to shore until bad weather, darkness, or the ship's hold is full of fish, net and line fishers repeat their tasks several times a day.

Pot fishers trap crab, eel, and lobster using baited cages with funnel-shaped net openings. They fish near the shore or in inland waters off small boats. Pot fishing is done by lowering the cages into the water, pulling them in when the catch are trapped, and dumping the catch onto the deck. These fishers must measure each animal to make sure it is large enough to lawfully keep. Undersize catch are thrown back into the water. When catching lobster, fishers must sometimes insert pegs between the hinges of their claws to keep them from killing each other in the hold of the ship. Pot fishers often sell their catches live to processors who can, freeze, or sell them fresh. Because they are hardy animals, lobster and crab are often sold and shipped to various places while they are still alive.

Terrapin fishers trap terrapin turtles by stretching nets across marshes, creeks, or rivers and chasing the terrapins into the nets. They may pole a skiff around in grassy waters and catch terrapins with a hand net or wade in mud and catch them by hand. Weir fishers make traps out of brush or netting, chase the fish into them, and remove the catch with a purse seine or net. Oyster fishers harvest oysters from beds in bays or river estuaries, using tongs, grabs, and dredges. They create "sea farms" to grow their catches by creating an environment suitable for growing oysters and keeping natural predators out of the oysters' waters.

While most fishers are involved with commercial fishing, some captains and deckhands are primarily involved with recreational fishing. Typically, a group of people charter a fishing vessel—for periods ranging from several hours to a few days—for sport fishing, socializing, and relaxation. The captain and crew are responsible for a safe voyage and will usually help the recreational fishers on board with their fishing.