Fishing Boat Careers
One of the most common types of fishing vessels is the trawler. These boats are named because they trawl, or drag an open net behind them, when they’re looking to catch fish. These nets can be quite large, and can hold several tonnes to several hundred tonnes. Trawl nets looking to catch bottom fish like flatfish and cod are considered ground trawl nets, and drag the bottom of the sea looking for bottom-dwelling animals. Other species that swim in the mid water range can be caught with mid-water trawl nets. These nets are often much larger than bottom trawl nets, and the fishery brings much less bycatch, or species that were not intended to be caught.
Trawlers come in the full spectrum of vessel sizes, depending on the species, location, and how the fish will be processed afterward. Small catcher trawlers will fish close to shore, and bring their catch in every day or two for processing by a plant, or for fresh sale. Larger boats, many of them Scottish fishing boats, will have processing plants on board, and can fillet, freeze, and store many tonnes of fish before returning to shore for an offload. This is very helpful when vessels are fishing far from a port or cannery, and because the fish is processed and frozen quickly after being caught, it results in a very fresh frozen product.
Trawlers need several different kinds of crew members. Small boats need captains, mates, and deckworkers who are willing to do additional jobs like engineer and cook. Larger boats need deck crew, captain and mate, as well as factory processing crews, cooks, housekeepers, paperwork mates, and an engine room staff.
Longline vessels catch their fish by setting long, underwater lines of baited hooks. These lines may be thousands of hooks long, and are good for catching things that don’t school well enough to catch in a net, or are too delicate to be crushed. Common species caught this way are cod and halibut. This is a more difficult way to catch large quantities of fish, but often the fish that they catch fetches a higher price.
The work on a longliner is mostly on deck, baiting hooks, fetching fish from lines, and dealing with long strings of hooks on ropes. While trawler work may not require long periods outside in frigid weather, longline work is often twelve or more hours outside in the freezing cold. Crews are smaller on longline boats than on trawlers, and hours are often tougher, but there is more chance to advance to positions like captain, as hard work is often rewarded with a watch shift inside the wheelhouse.
Longline vessels need captains and mates, deck crew, a cook, and sometimes a small crew of factory processors, depending on the vessel type. These boats are somewhat less plush than large factory trawlers, and rarely have the kind of cooks and housekeepers you find on those boats.
There are a number of fish species that can’t be easily caught with a line, and aren’t easily netted by a trawler. Many of these species are shellfish, and fetch a higher market value when they arrive at their destination whole and alive. For these species, a pot trap is a great way to catch them. Though many recreational fishers do this with a few traps, commercial pot boats can catch crab, lobster, octopus and other species on a much larger scale.
Of all the fishing vessel types, this is probably the most risky. Pot vessels carry a heavy load of traps on board, and when they get iced down on the deck, the boat can become top-heavy and capsize. The eight-hundred pound pots can swing and cause a boat to be very rocky, making it hard for crew to maneuver. But it can be a very lucrative fishery as well, and skilled deck crew and captains can often do well. These boats rarely have a processing element on board, and need a captain and crew who also take the duties of engineer and cook.
When the fishing grounds are far from a processing plant, or a season is very short, it is often difficult to get the full opportunity to fish when you need to head inland to deliver each time you are full. Motherships and tender vessels are two solutions to this problem, and are important parts of the commercial fishing industry. Motherships are at-sea processors that will follow smaller catcher vessels around and take at-sea deliveries of the fish. This allows the catcher boats to continue fishing, rather than wasting two or three days each way steaming out to drop off their catch. Tender vessels can’t process at sea, but they will load up on fish caught by other vessels, and spend their time transporting it back to the cannery on land, so that the fishing vessels can continue fishing without being interrupted by delivery time.
These support vessels don’t actively fish, but they do need a full crew to run effectively. Deck crew must safely oversee deliveries and handle fish in a way that preserves product value. Captains must keep boats safely running and processing in high seas, and see the vessel safely to and from shore. Motherships are often larger vessels, and in addition to a full processing crew, have a papermate to keep track of deliveries and ensure that multiple catcher boats get paid for the correct amount of fish. They also often sport a housekeeping and kitchen crew to keep their workers on task and not worrying about dinner or laundry, since the boat regularly runs twenty-four hours per day.
One of the newest innovations in the commercial fish industry is the fish farm. Atlantic Salmon and steelhead trout are the two most popular at-sea species to be farmed, and are kept corralled in large sea nets. They must be tended to daily, and several different kinds of workers are needed to make the farms run effectively. On-land hatcheries are needed to spawn and fertilize eggs, and grow the fish to a size that they will fit into the net systems. This requires a hatchery crew to ensure fresh, oxygen-rich water and food for the growing fish frye. Hatchery staff will also monitor and treat the fish for disease, and clean out dead fish daily to keep their decomposition from polluting the water for the other fish.
Drivers and tenders are needed to transport growing fish to the net pens. This usually requires a water vacuum system, and the fish are driven or barged in tanks, and then pumped into the pen. Once they are in their final pen, staff is needed to continue to monitor the fish for disease, to dive on the pens and check it for damage and to clean out dead fish from the bottom of the pen. Staff is needed to feed the fish daily, and to watch for otters, seals, sea lions and birds who might see the pen as a free meal. Finally, tenders are again needed when the fish is harvested and brought to a processing crew to prepare for sale.
Where to Find Work
Fishing can be a very profitable career. It often pays well, but requires long hours away from friends and family as a consequence. If you are looking for a fishing career, Scotland is a great place to begin, as there is a thriving fishing industry. The easiest way to secure a fishing job is to work with fishermen you know. The fishing industry is like a small village, and often people know someone looking to hire. Since the conditions and the work ethic required are different than most land jobs, to get a reference from a fisherman that you’re up to the task is the best kind of praise you can have when applying for the job.
If you don’t know any fishermen, look at Scotland and the UK’s job sites, and watch for positions to arise. Don’t be discouraged if the first jobs that appear are at a lower level than you’d like. This is often the way many fishermen get started, and if you are willing to work hard, you will rapidly advance, because fishing companies usually promote their crew from within first. Be sure to remind your supervisors of any boating experience you have, particularly if you begin as processing crew. If a deck crew member gets injured or leaves, they will remember you when it’s time to fill that position, and will often give you a try before putting out a formal search.
It’s also important to remember that not all fishing experiences are the same. Boats range in size from tiny to large, and from dirty to immaculately clean. Crews vary in personality, and if you like the work but not the people, you may just need to find a different vessel with a crew that suits you. At-sea work is different than boats where you hit land every few days, and both require you to face different challenges. If you want to stay in fishing but have reservations about some of the conditions, look first at other fishing types before returning to a land job instead.