Fishers and related fishing workers catch and trap various types of marine life. The fish they catch are for human food, animal feed, bait, and other uses.

Duties

Fishers and related fishing workers typically do the following:

  • Locate fish using fish-finding equipment
  • Direct fishing operations and supervise the crew of fishing vessels
  • Steer vessels and operate navigational instruments
  • Maintain engines, fishing gear, and other onboard equipment by doing minor repairs
  • Sort, pack, and store the catch in holds with salt and ice
  • Measure fish to ensure they comply with legal size
  • Return undesirable or illegal catches to the water
  • Guide nets, traps, and lines onto vessels by hand or using hoisting equipment
  • Signal other workers to move, hoist, and position loads

To plot the ship's course, fishing boat captains use compasses, charts, and electronic navigational equipment, including global positioning systems (GPS). They also use radar and sonar to avoid obstacles above and below the water and to find fish.

Some fishers work in deep water on large fishing boats that are equipped for long stays at sea. Some process the fish they catch on board and prepare them for sale.

Other fishers work in shallow water on small boats that often have a crew of only one or two members. They might put nets across the mouths of rivers or inlets, or pots and traps for fish or shellfish such as lobsters and crabs, or they might use dredges to gather other shellfish, such as oysters and scallops.

A small portion of commercial fishing requires diving with diving suits or scuba gear. These divers use spears to catch fish and nets to gather shellfish, sea urchins, abalone, and sponges.

Some fishers harvest marine vegetation rather than fish. They use rakes and hoes to gather Irish moss and kelp.

Although most fishers work in commercial fishing, some in this occupation use their expertise in sport or recreational fishing.

Aquaculture—raising and harvesting fish and other aquatic life under controlled conditions in ponds or confined bodies of water—is a different field. For more information, see the profile on farmers, ranchers, and agricultural managers.

The fishing boat captain plans and oversees the fishing operation, the fish to be sought, location of the best fishing grounds, method of capture, duration of the trip, and sale of the catch. Captains direct the fishing operation and record daily activities in the ship’s log. Increasingly, they use the Internet to bypass processors and sell their fish directly to consumers, grocery stores, and restaurants.

Fishers that specialize in catching certain species include crabbers and lobster catchers.

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Work Environment

Fishers and related fishing workers held about 31,300 jobs in 2012. About 57 percent were self-employed. Fishing operations are conducted under various environmental conditions, depending on the region, body of water, and kinds of fish sought. Storms, fog, and wind may hamper fishing vessels or cause them to suspend fishing operations and return to port.

Although fishing gear has improved and operations have become more mechanized, netting and processing fish are nonetheless strenuous activities. Newer vessels have improved living quarters and amenities, but crews still experience the aggravations of confined quarters and the absence of family.

Injuries and Illnesses

Commercial fishing can be dangerous, and lead to workplace injuries or even fatalities. Fishers and related fishing workers often work under hazardous conditions, and transportation to a hospital or doctor is often not readily available. Most fatalities for fishers and related fishing workers are from drowning. The crew must guard against the danger of injury from malfunctioning fishing gear, entanglement in fishing nets and gear, slippery decks, ice formation, or large waves washing over the deck. Malfunctioning navigation and communication equipment and other factors may lead to collisions or shipwrecks.

Work Schedules

Fishers and related fishing workers endure strenuous outdoor work and long hours. Commercial fishing trips may require workers to be away from their home port for several weeks or months.

Many fishers are seasonal workers, and those jobs are usually filled by students and by people from other occupations, such as teachers. For example, employment of fishers in Alaska more than doubles during the summer months, which is the salmon season.

Education and Training

Fishers and related fishing workers usually learn on the job. No formal education is required.

Education

Formal education is not required to be a fisher. However, by enrolling in 2-year vocational-technical programs offered by some high schools, fishers can improve their chances of getting a job. In addition, some community colleges and universities offer fishery technology and related programs that include courses in seamanship, vessel operations, marine safety, navigation, vessel repair, and fishing gear technology. Secondary and postsecondary programs are typically located near coastal areas and include hands-on experience.

Training

Most fishers learn on the job. They start by finding work through family or friends, or simply by walking around the docks and asking for employment. Aspiring fishers can also look online for potential employment. Some larger trawlers and processing ships are run by larger companies, in which new workers can apply through the companies’ human resources department. Operators of large commercial fishing vessels must complete a Coast Guard-approved training course.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Captains of fishing boats must be licensed.

Crew members on certain fish-processing vessels may need a merchant mariner’s document. The U.S. Coast Guard issues these documents and licenses to people who meet the specific health, physical, and academic requirements.

States set licensing requirements for boats operating in state waters, defined as inland waters and waters within 3 miles of the coast.

Fishers need a permit to fish in almost any water. Permits are distributed by states for state waters and by regional fishing councils for federal waters. The permits specify the fishing season, the type and amount of fish that may be caught, and sometimes the type of permissible fishing gear.

Advancement

Experienced, reliable fishing boat deckhands can become boatswains, then second mates, first mates, and, finally, captains. Those who are interested in ship engineering may gain experience with maintaining and repairing ship engines to become licensed chief engineers on large commercial boats. This requires meeting the Coast Guard's licensing requirements. For more information, see the profile on water transportation occupations.

Almost all captains are self-employed, and most eventually own, or partially own, one or more fishing boats.

Personality and Interests

Fishers and related fishing workers typically have an interest in the Building interest area, according to the Holland Code framework. The Building interest area indicates a focus on working with tools and machines, and making or fixing practical things.

If you are not sure whether you have a Building interest which might fit with a career as a fisher and related fishing worker, you can take a career test to measure your interests.

Fishers and related fishing workers should also possess the following specific qualities:

Analytical skills. Fishers and related fishing workers must measure the quality of their catch, which requires precision and accuracy.

Critical-thinking skills. Fishers and related fishing workers reach conclusions through sound reasoning and judgment. They determine how to improve the catch and must react appropriately to weather conditions.

Listening skills. Fishers and related fishing workers need to work well with others—they take instructions from captains and others—so effective listening is critical.

Machine operation skills. Fishers and related fishing workers must be able to operate complex fishing machinery competently and occasionally do routine maintenance.

Navigation skills. Fishers and related fishing workers must use complex tools to navigate boats to where the highest concentration of fish is located.

Physical stamina. Fishers and related fishing workers must be able to work long hours, often in strenuous conditions.

Physical strength. Fishers and related fishing workers must use physical strength along with hand dexterity and coordination to perform difficult tasks repeatedly.

Pay

The median annual wage for fishers and related fishing workers was $33,430 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $24,130, and the top 10 percent earned more than $58,470.

Fishers and related fishing workers endure strenuous outdoor work and long hours. Commercial fishing trips may require workers to be away from their home port for several weeks or months.

Many fishers are seasonal workers, and those jobs are usually filled by students and by people from other occupations, such as teachers. For example, employment of fishers in Alaska more than doubles during the summer months, which is the salmon season.

Job Outlook

Employment of fishers and related fishing workers is projected to decline 5 percent from 2012 to 2022.

Fishers and related fishing workers depend on the natural ability of fish stocks to replenish themselves through growth and reproduction. They also depend on governmental regulation to promote replenishment of fisheries. In order to conserve the fish population in the coming years, the need for setting catch limits has risen. Additionally, improvements in fishing gear and vessel design have increased fish hauls.

Governmental efforts to replenish stocks are getting some positive results, which should increase fish stocks in the future. The U.S. government recently set catch limits for every species it manages.

Rising seafood imports and increasing competition from farm-raised fish are affecting fishing income and causing some fishers to leave the industry. However, because competition from farm-raised and imported seafood tends to be concentrated in specific species, some regions are more affected than others.

Job Prospects

Most job openings will result from the need to replace fishers and related fishing workers who leave the occupation. Many workers leave because of the strenuous and hazardous nature of the job and the lack of a steady year-round income. The best prospects should be with large fishing operations and for seasonal employment. Opportunities with small independent fishers are expected to be limited.

For More Information

For more information about licensing of fishing boat captains and about requirements for merchant mariner documentation, visit

National Maritime Center, Coast Guard Headquarters

For information about injuries and safety issues, visit

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

 “Facts of the catch: occupational injuries, illnesses, and fatalities to fishing workers, 2003–2009,” Beyond the Numbers, Bureau of Labor Statistics, August 2012.

FAQ

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The career information above is taken from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook. This excellent resource for occupational data is published by the U.S. Department of Labor every two years. Truity periodically updates our site with information from the BLS database.

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