Nothing but Net

A commercial captain starts a school for fishermen
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Commercial fishermen usually learn their trade the hard way—on the job at sea. But a former Gloucester fishing captain thinks he has a better method: in the classroom.

Joe Sanfilippo, 47, spent 28 years working alongside his four older brothers on his family’s fleet of three 80-foot fishing boats based in the famous Massachusetts fishing town. He has experience swordfishing, longlining and dragging for cod, haddock and pollock. Now, he wants to teach others some of what he knows in a vocational training program he’s developed called Extreme Gloucester Fishing. 

Sanfilippo offered his first class, on repairing torn nets, last spring, and hopes to expand the curriculum to a six-month full-time course that will train a new generation of seamen for the local fishing fleet. 

He first had the idea for the training classes two decades ago, but the timing wasn’t right. “The lack of a pipeline for new, young crewmembers was not yet a serious problem,” Sanfilippo says. “But I had foreseen it because I was the youngest guy in my crew. They were all much older, some by 30 years.” 

The curriculum for Extreme Gloucester Fishing includes 40 modules for eight subjects that take 830 hours of classroom work to complete. “I chose to teach net-mending first because it’s the thing you really need to know to get onto a commercial fishing vessel. You have to know that before they even give you a job.” 

A few dozen people signed up for the first class. A graduate of that course recently got a job on a commercial fishing boat in Alaska. Some of the other students had spent just a short time on commercial boats when they registered. One is a young woman who has been fishing with her father on his lobster boat. 

Not all of the students are new to fishing. Shawn Goulart has been working on local fishing boats for a quarter century, but he took the class to improve his skills. “Somehow I managed to make it for 25 years without ever learning how to mend nets,” he said. “It may have held me up a bit in my career, especially in the early years when almost everyone on the water knew how to do it.” Having the skill, he contends, makes him more valuable. 

“The full six-month program encompasses every aspect of commercial fishing so you can get onto any boat anywhere in the world and perform the duties of a deckhand,” Sanfilippo says. “It ranges from vessel handling and safety, to gear, to all the terminology.” Sanfilippo also stresses the benefits of learning in a classroom, which is not how he was taught. 

Joe Sanfilippo (right) teaches the critical skill of net-mending. 

Joe Sanfilippo (right) teaches the critical skill of net-mending. 

 “A lot of these guys, myself included, were taught under extreme circumstances, on a pitching deck with a lot of wind and rain. It’s a hostile environment for learning. I want to break it down in a classroom and create some excitement so that people will actually enjoy going out there.” 

Shrinking catches and increased government regulation have discouraged some people from getting into commercial fishing; Sanfilippo himself stopped fishing a few years ago because of what he saw as over-regulation. Those realities have also discouraged some professional captains from training new crew. “It’s been tough to recruit,” Sanfilippo says. The hard, sometimes dangerous work, lack of health insurance and retirement plans make it challenging to bring new people into the profession. For that reason, Sanfilippo’s course includes a segment on financial planning. Yet even with the obstackles, he hopes to capitalize on the popularity of shows like The Deadliest Catch, which have prompted more interest in commercial fishing. 

Students pay $40 a class, but that’s not enough for Sanfilippo to cover his costs, even with a roster of volunteer guest instructors. “That’s okay because this isn’t about the money,” he says. “It’s about the heritage and the knowledge that shouldn’t be lost. I have 28 years of knowledge in my head that I want to share with people who can sustain the industry.” Sanfilippo is familiar with commercial fishing classes in Norway, Sweden and other countries, but thinks his course is one of the first of its kind in the United States. “Gloucester is the perfect place for it. We used to have the largest landings in the country.”

Michael De Koster, executive director of Gloucester Maritime, which operates a maritime museum and aquarium, has taught some of the classes for Extreme Gloucester Fishing. “We like to see the traditional skill sets passed on. The class is a wonderful contribution to the industry and an opportunity for students to get hired more quickly. I think Joe is going to put more people in the pipeline, and give these fishermen a leg up in the industry.” 

This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue.