New training program for aspiring fishing crew in Western Alaska

Alaska’s commercial fishing industry employs more people than any other industry in the state. Yet fewer young people are entering the industry, and resources are scarce to help aspiring crew members succeed, a concern that Alaska Sea Grant has addressed with the development of a new “Crew Class” training program.

crew class student seated on floor, donning orange survival suit
A student in an April 2019 training class for new fishing crew in New Stuyahok, Alaska, practices putting on a survival suit. Photo by Gabe Dunham/Alaska Sea Grant.

The industry has traditionally relied on the model of “green horn” training—taking on a crew member with little or no vessel and fishing experience and having them learn on the job. This practice comes at a cost: inexperienced and untrained crew onboard result in an increased safety risk and decreased production for the operator. For the new crew member, the lack of fishing skills comes with challenges to personal safety, a steep learning curve and half-share pay. 

Two people practicing fishing net repair
A student in a May 2019 training class for new fishing crew in Manokotak, Alaska, practices repairing a torn fishing net. Photo by Gabe Dunham/Alaska Sea Grant.

Dillingham fisherman Johanna Bouker brought these concerns to Alaska Sea Grant’s Gabe Dunham, the Marine Advisory Program agent for the Bristol Bay region. Dunham worked with area partners to address these challenges by launching a training program for new or recently hired crew.

The class focuses on eight subjects relevant to working in a commercial gillnet operation, including knots and lines, net mending, catch bag repair, fish handling and quality, getting fish out of nets, boat handling, professionalism on the job, and marine safety.

The class was developed and piloted in Dillingham by Dunham and a team of experienced and respected local commercial fishing captains. Since the initial class in 2018, Dunham has worked with partners at the Bristol Bay Native Association to serve residents from 11 communities with classes in Aleknagik, King Salmon, Iliamna, Togiak, New Stuyahok and Manokotak.

“Reaction has been positive from our fishing industry folks,” said Dunham. “We have local fishing captains giving their time to help teach the workshops, which is important because they know the particulars of fishing in our region. We also have support from local schools, and work with them to identify compatible schedules.”

More than 100 prospective crew members have received training through the classes. There are plans to expand the program outside Western Alaska.

Two students practice repairing a large brailer bag
Students at a May 2019 training class for new fishing crew in Naknek, Alaska, learn to repair a brailer bag, a large container for storing the fishing catch on a boat. Photo by Gabe Dunham/Alaska Sea Grant.

“We’re working to bring this program statewide in the near future, through partnerships with local industry groups, University of Alaska community campuses, and school districts,” said Dunham.