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Fishers and Fishing Vessel Operators - What They Do

How to Advance (Advancement)
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.

Fishers and fishing vessel operators held an estimated 35,600 jobs in 2008. Over half were self-employed. Most fishing takes place off the coasts, particularly off Alaska, the Gulf Coast, Virginia, California, and New England. Alaska ranks the highest in total volume of fish caught, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Many fishers are seasonal workers and positions are usually filled by people who work primarily in other occupations, such as teachers, or by students. For example, salmon season causes employment of fishers in Alaska to more than double during the summer. Because fishing is mostly seasonal and workers are often self-employed, measuring total employment is difficult.

Job Outlook
Employment of fishers and fishing vessel operators is projected to decline moderately as regulations relating to the replenishment of fish stocks reduce allowable fishing.

Job Growth
Employment of fishers and fishing vessel operators is expected to decline moderately by 8 percent through the year 2018. 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. As the use of sophisticated electronic equipment for navigation, communication, and locating fish has raised the efficiency of finding fish stocks, the need for setting limits to catches also has risen. Additionally, 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.

Fisheries councils issue various types of restrictions to prevent over-harvesting and to allow stocks of fish and shellfish to naturally replenish. Fishing councils are shifting to an individual quota system that tends to reduce employment. Nonetheless, such a system is beneficial for those who remain in the industry because it allows for longer fishing seasons, better investment returns, and steadier employment.

In addition, rising seafood imports and increasing competition from farm-raised fish are adversely affecting fishing income and is also causing some fishers to leave the industry. However, competition from farm-raised and imported seafood tends to be concentrated in specific species and thus should have more of an impact in some regions than others.

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 to prevent the type of decline in fish stocks found in waters off the East Coast. Nevertheless, pollution is now being recognized as a new factor affecting the reproduction of fish, a scenario that may take years to mitigate. Consequently, fewer fishers and fishing vessel operators are expected to make their living from the Nation's waters in the years ahead.

The vast majority of job openings will result from the need to replace fishers and fishing vessel operators who leave the occupation because of the strenuous and hazardous nature of the job and the lack of steady, year-round income. The best prospects should be with large fishing operations, while opportunities with small independent fishers are expected to be limited. Sportfishing boats may provide some job opportunities.

In May 2008, median annual wages of wage-and-salary fishers were $27,950. The middle 50 percent earned between $19,510 and $33,580. The bottom 10 percent earned less than $16,080, while the top 10 percent earned more than $45,930. Earnings of fishers and fishing vessel operators normally are highest in the summer and fall when demand for their catch 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.

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 such as fuel, 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.

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