Job: Commercial fisherman
The role: Though many Canadians enjoy sport fishing, only a select few licensed and trained fisherman, operating in a limited number of regions across Canada, make a living from their catch. For such professionals, there are only a few seasonal windows when they are permitted to fish for certain species in certain locations, ranging from a few months to as little as a few days a year. As such, fishermen spend much of the off-season ensuring that they're prepared for anything when that window opens.
"The shorter your fishing season is, the more important it is to make sure everything is in top working shape. You can't afford any down time for any reason when you're only fishing for a few weeks [a year], because you can lose half your annual income for a silly engine problem," said John Sutcliffe, the recently semi-retired executive director of the Canadian Council of Professional Fish Harvesters, a non-profit organization that supports the fishing industry in Canada. "Along with the actual fishing activity, there's a terrific investment of time and money that goes into preparing the boat or the vessel and the gear for fishing, and then, after fishing, for putting things away and winterizing."
While long-haul fishing trips of a few weeks or even months was once the norm, the majority of Canadian fishermen now start their day at dawn or earlier – preparing the vessel and equipment before heading out on the water to lay traps and fishing lines, assuming the weather permits – returning later that same evening.
Fishermen must also be very familiar with the various techniques and technologies at their disposal.
"You may be a net fisherman, gill-netting, or on a larger boat seining, or hook-and-line fisherman, trolling or long lining, there are trap fisherman, and all of these technologies are for different species," Mr. Sutcliffe said.
Education: The fishing industry is highly regulated in Canada, and commercial fishermen often find themselves heading out on the water with a tall stack of documents, licences and certifications.
The master and watchkeeping officer of certain, larger fishing vessels must obtain certification from Transport Canada, and provide on-board safety training to the rest of their crew. All aboard must also have a training certificate in marine emergency duties, also issued by Transport Canada, as well as a personal commercial fishing licence, which can be acquired online through Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
At least one person on board each vessel must have first aid training, and each boat must be individually licensed to operate in a Canadian fishery by Transport Canada.
There is also a Fishing Master designation, which is required for larger vessel operators, and can be obtained at a number of institutions across Canada, particularly in areas where there are large fishing communities, including North Island College and Camosun College in British Columbia, the Fisheries and Marine Institute of Memorial University in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia Community College, the École des pêches et de l'aquaculture du Québec, and the École des pêches in Caraquet, N.B.
"Training is provincial jurisdiction," Mr. Sutcliffe said. "In some regions, like in Quebec and in Newfoundland, there are formal requirements for training and for experience and certifications related to different categories."
Fishermen are also required to have professional radio operator certificates from Industry Canada.
Not only does each vessel and crew member need to follow stringent licensing requirements, but the type and size of each catch is tightly regulated as well.
"The other licences are species licences," explained Mr. Sutcliffe, adding that such licences – which specify the species and maximum amount of fish, measured by weight, that can be caught and sold in certain areas – are often transferred between family and community members. "Some of these licenses are very expensive, in excess of a million dollars, which is a significant barrier to entry."
Rules and regulations are also subject to change, which is why Transport Canada provides an online resource for commercial fishermen to understand the requirements in their region.
Salary: The industry, which is dependent on factors far beyond the individual fisherman's control, is one that can provide significant rewards as well as significant hardships. Salaries vary widely between regions and target species, and are also closely tied to seasonal conditions.
For crew members, there are two common payment types: Some agree to a day rate of approximately $200 to $250 a day, while others enter a crew share agreement, which guarantees them 5 per cent to 20 per cent of the vessel's gross earnings that season.
"Some fisheries, there's a possibility, even probability, than an average crew share would produce $40,000 or $50,000 for a couple of months' work," said Mr. Sutcliffe, adding that salary is never guaranteed for those who enter a crew share agreement, and that day rates are the primary payment structure.
The pay of owner/operators can range even more significantly from season to season.
"There are people that probably make several hundred thousand dollars in net income, whose gross earnings are substantially in excess of that, but they need to cover costs and crew shares," Mr. Sutcliffe said. "A really bad year is a year when you go into debt because [of] the high cost of operating, never mind if you've bought a species licence, for example, or borrowed money to buy a vessel."
Mr. Sutcliffe adds that fishermen also have the opportunity to supplement their income by working in the off-season as well.
Job prospects: The fishing industry has many barriers to entry, and is only feasible in specific regions, including coastal areas and a small number of freshwater fisheries in some parts of the country.
Furthermore, because of the high cost of species licences and vessels, the barriers to entry are too high for most, Mr. Sutcliffe says.
"There's an issue, which we call the 'inter-generational transfer of assets,' and it's a major issue," he said. "I would say it's almost a certainty that if you're not from a fishing family or a fishing community, and can't get certain types of help and experience, including financial help … it's not an attractive option."
Challenges: Among the most difficult challenges for commercial fishermen is the fluctuation in pay, as well as the limited seasonality of the industry. Furthermore, difficult weather conditions can make for an unpleasant and even dangerous working environment.
Why they do it: For many in the industry, fishing is as much a way of life as it is a career. Fisherman often enjoy working independently while being out on the water for long stretches of time.
"There used to be a bumper sticker on the West Coast, 'The worst day of fishing is better than the best day at the office,'" Mr. Sutcliffe says. "There's a kind of liberty to the work space and conditions that I think is quite attractive to a lot of people."
Misconceptions: Mr. Sutcliffe says many people believe that commercial fishermen "are ready to kill the last fish." But he says that overfishing is in no one's best interest, least of all the fishermen whose careers would come to an end.
"I think Canadians in general feel, whether it's salmon or lobster or herring or whatever species they might be aware of, that the resource is in trouble and in decline," said Mr. Sutcliffe, adding that fish stocks are generally in good shape across the country. "We need fishery science to make the right decisions, and fishermen these days are strongly supportive of that, and ready to participate in data collection and basic science activities that will make a difference. We're in better shape than most Canadians believe."
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