Recruitment, training and retention in small-scale fisheries in Newfoundland and Labrador

By María Andrée López Gómez

This talk took place on December 8th as part of the Marine Institute MIGS seminar series.


Small-scale enterprises play a key role in anchoring fisheries wealth and employment in rural regions of the province and their ongoing strong presence in the Newfoundland and Labrador fisheries is testimony to their resilience. However, relatively few younger harvesters have entered small-scale fisheries in recent decades and the existing cohort is aging rapidly pointing to a looming recruitment problem. Research in Module I-2 aims to identify trends in recruitment, training and retention of the workforce in fisheries in the region of NL and understand the processes and dynamics surrounding training and retention in fisheries. The identification of trends will deepen our understanding of the interactions between governance and other factors (ecological, economic, social-cultural) that have, are and could affect the intergenerational resilience of small-scale fisheries.

Fisheries in the province are embedded in household, family and community relations and fishing takes place in rural and isolated areas where job options are scarce. In the past three decades there have been substantial changes to the fishery including the collapse of groundfish stocks, the shift to shellfish, governance-related changes linked to licensing and downsizing of the fishery; and the establishment of a professionalization system with formal requirements to fish. Some of these changes have weakened opportunities to earn a living from fishing and pose a crisis to intergenerational equity in terms of succession to the fishery.

Downsizing efforts that initiated in the 90’s included buyout and early retirement programs along with new sets of rules to dissolve part-time licenses and effectively terminate the opportunity to pass on these types of licenses to next generations. Efforts to increase the viability of the few fishing enterprises remaining in the water included a combining policy that allows owner-operators (a person who owns a fishing license and fishes the license themselves) to buy a second fishing license and combine it with the first one. This effectively cancels the second license contributing to the decrease of number of licenses available for future generations.

A third important change in the fishery was the introduction of a professionalization system that requires fish harvesters to be certified in order to fish. Certification is possible by sponsorship from a skipper, experience fishing and completion of land-based courses. Certification also requires that fish harvesters commit to fish full time, that is, to earn 75% of their income from commercial fishing during the fishing season (from May 1st to October 1st).

Downsizing efforts have pushed forward the exit of thousands of fish harvesters from the fishing labour force. As of November 2020, there were 9,094 registered harvesters with the NL-Professional Fish Harvester Certification Board (NL-PFHCB), half the number than two decades ago in 2000 when there were 18,766 registered fish harvesters (Data Source: Rick Williams).

Through a mixed-methods approach that included a survey, interviews, data collection and a literature review, we aimed to understand issues of training and retention. We designed a survey for fish harvesters to understand issues in training and retention. We did it by adapting a survey used in the Norwegian context to the context in NL. The survey was administered online from November 2020 to January 2021.

Three hundred thirty fish harvesters completed the survey and 11 fish harvesters participated in interviews:

  • Survey Participants (330 participants):

- 13 % women and 87% men

- 4% younger than 25 and 45% 55 years of age and older

- Average age: 48 years old

- Average number of years fishing: 26 years

  • Interview Participants (11 interviews):

- 3 women and 9 men spoke with us

- 5 owner-operators and 3 crew members

- 1 Designated operator

- 2 people wanting to work in the fishery

One of the main goals of the online survey was to increase our knowledge on recruitment into the fishery: if recruitment is a problem, how does recruitment occur, what is the composition of crew and owner-operators.

Survey results showed that 79% of owner-operators did not have problems recruiting crew members in 2019, while 21% had at least some problems recruiting crew. Most crew came from family members, family of the owner-operators, spouse or partner, or from their (respondents’) hometown or region showing that fishing is indeed a family and community endeavor. More interestingly, most owner-operators (53%) have had the same crew for years and most respondents plan to continue working in the fishery during the next five years. We observed that more crew (n=56) than owner-operators (n=28) plan to invest in acquiring a bigger enterprise. These data show there is not an immediate recruitment problem, however in interviews and in the literature we found that the problem lies in retention of new entrants into the fishery, as one participant stated:

You can get people anywhere now to go fishing. Everyone wants to go fishing……but financially it’s so difficult to keep two people (crew) around all year round”

Owner-operators have trouble keeping a stable workforce due to changes in quotas, challenges with weather conditions and the intrinsic instability of fishing. These challenges clash with the needs of crew members to become stable in the fishery. Some crew point to the difficulties in fulfilling professionalization requirements and earning a decent living from fishing in order to invest in a fishing enterprise and become established fish harvesters (See figure 1). A fish harvester expressed their frustrations:

“Crew cannot hold the certification because money is not there if you apply the 75% income rule. If the fishing season lasted from first fishing trip to last, then yes it works, but I fished from late March to June, then boat is tied from June to October…… the 75% rule is outdated as there are Individual Quotas now”.

The fishery then faces a problem of high turnover among new entrants who are unable to transition from crew to owner-operators due to unstable working conditions that do not enable them to work during the whole fishing season and do not allow them to fulfill requirements to stay in the fishery as professional fish harvesters.

Recruitment and retention of people in the fishery is tied to sustainable communities as commercial fishing supports municipal taxes and other local industries including processing plants. To enable intergenerational succession of fisheries resources, fisheries governance need to focus on strategies that aid local outsiders to become insiders in the fishery.


María Andrée López Gómez worked as a postdoctoral fellow in the Sociology Department at Memorial University, funded by the Ocean Frontier Institute when investigating issues of recruitment, training and retention in small-scale fisheries. María Andrée is an Occupational Health Epidemiologist and her research centers on the impact that labour market policies and organizational policies have on workers’ health and well-being outcomes. Her current postdoctoral position at the Centre for Demographic Studies at the Autonomous University of Barcelona focuses on Health inequalities in the working population of Catalonia, Spain.