Fishers and Fishing Vessel Operators

There are over 36,000 fishers and fishing vessel operators working in the United States. Fifty-six percent of all fishers and fishing vessel operators are self-employed. Job growth over the next decade is expected to decline at about 8%. This is due to a number of factors. Technological advances allow for operations by fewer workers and efficiency by locating large schools of fish. Limits on allowable amounts are rising in response to concern about areas becoming fished out. Pollution is another contributing factor.
This occupation is considered one of the most hazardous types of work. Fishers typically started as deck hands and learned sufficient skills on the job to advance.


Fishers and fishing vessel operators catch fish and other sea life for animal feed, bait, and human consumption. Commercial vessels, designed to carry tens of thousands of pounds of fish, are operated by a skipper, first mate, a deck boss or boatswain (pronounced bose’n), and deckhands. The skipper or captain determines where to fish, the length of trip, the type of fish, and the selling of the catch. The skipper maintains the boat and is responsible for fuel, netting, food, cable, and other supplies. He or she also hires the crew, assigns tasks, and arranges fishing permits and licenses. The skipper plans the course using an assortment of navigational equipment, and keeps a record of all activities. When the boat has returned to port, it is the skipper’s job to work with wholesalers, food processors, or fish auctioneers for their sale. Some sell directly to restaurants or groceries.

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The first mate is in charge of the boat if the skipper is unavailable. The first mate operates equipment, navigates, supervises deckhands, and assumes all sailing responsibilities while the skipper is unavailable. The boatswain is an experienced deckhand who supervises deckhands’ work. Boatswains repair equipment and nets, as well as oversee net, cage, or line casts.
In addition to catching fish, deckhands clean and prepare them for storage, keep decks clean, and maintain engines and equipment. Some commercial companies hire divers to gather shellfish or spear fish. These workers wear protective diving suits and enter the water for shellfish that cannot be easily caught with nets or for certain deep water species.
Fishers might work on large commercial boats that remain many miles from shore for extended periods, or on smaller vessels in shallower waters close to shore that remain on the water for shorter periods. Fishing vessel operators who run tourist fishing boats might go out for a half or full day, or up to a few days. Fishers work under many types of conditions, dependent on the location, the type of fish being caught, the size of the vessel, and the body of water. This type of work demands strength, stamina and at times, courage. Fishers, except for day boats, are exposed to weather extremes. Sea storms and heavy fog can put them in extreme danger. Slipping on wet decks, falling overboard, or getting caught in machinery can result in sprains, broken bones, lost limbs, or fatality. In an emergency, medical help is not available. While newer boats may provide shower stalls, television, and other amenities, there are still a number of hardships to endure.
Fishers learn their trade through on-the-job experience rather than academic requirements. Large commercial fishing vessel operators must pass a training course approved by the Coast Guard. Some secondary schools near a coast may offer a two year vocational technical program, or classes in fisher technology, vessel operations, navigation, water safety, vessel repair and maintenance. Licenses are required for charter boat skippers as well as skippers and mates on ships that weigh 200 gross tons or more. Some vessels require crew to have a merchant mariner’s document issued by the U.S. Coast Guard. Boats operating on inland waters and ocean within three miles of the coast may be required by the state to be licensed. In all cases, fishers must have permits either from the state or a regional council.
Deckhands who are committed to fishing as a career, exhibit maturity and responsibility, and communicate well are likely to be promoted to boatswain. Boatswains who demonstrate the necessary qualities can advance to becoming a first or second mate. With enough experience and commitment, a promotion to skipper is likely. Those with mechanical ability might become licensed chief engineers on commercial ships.
The work is primarily seasonal. Many fishers have other jobs during the off-season, while some work throughout the year. The median annual pay for fishers on a salary is under $30,000. Those at the bottom earned around $18,000, and those in the top earned more than $40,000. Pay is dependent upon boat size, catch value, location, experience, and type of job. Fishers are paid a predetermined percentage of the catch’s net value after fuel, food, and other supplies and expenses are deducted. The owner of the boat, who is often the skipper, typically gets 50 % of the net.