The Job and What's Involved

Fishermen/women/Skippers are part of a fishing vessel's crew, travelling out to sea in order to catch fish. Their working environment is tough and potentially dangerous.

Vessels range in size from single-handed boats to large factory ships crewed by as many as 20 people. A typical boat has a crew of three to six hands.

Large modern vessels use advanced electronic systems to navigate, locate fish and monitor the storage conditions of the catch. Modern equipment also reduces the need to lift and shovel the fish.

Fishermen/women working as deckhands are likely to:

  • Prepare the deck and vessel before going out to sea.
  • Operate fishing gear that shoots (unloads) fishing nets into the sea and hauls the nets back out of the sea once the fish have been caught.
  • Remove fish from the nets.
  • Sort the fish by type and size.
  • Gut the fish and store them in ice or in seawater tanks if kept live.
  • Repair nets and equipment.
  • Wash down decks and keep the vessel safe, clean and hygienic.
  • Unload the fish when the vessel returns to the harbour.

Depending on the size of the vessel, tasks may also include:

  • Cooking for the crew (most larger boats employ their own cooks).
  • Helping with the wheelhouse watch - this includes steering the vessel, looking out for other vessels and for changes in the weather.
  • Helping with the maintenance of the vessel's engine.
  • On factory ships, additional duties involved with handling and freezing the catch.

Fishermen/women may also be expected to develop skills such as net making and splicing rope. With experience they may also learn to use some of the electronic equipment on board.

A ship's mate may have additional responsibilities, including reading charts and navigating, radio communications, using more advanced equipment and deputising for the skipper.

A skipper is in overall command of the boat. Skippers are responsible for all aspects of health and safety, and crew and vessel management. This may include:

  • Supervision of the operation of fishing gear.
  • Vessel navigation.
  • Deciding on the method of fishing and the area of operation.
  • Management of business arrangements with merchants, vessel owners and agents.
  • Accurately maintaining all ship records to ensure compliance with regulations governing fishing vessels.
  • Accurately maintaining all catch logs to ensure compliance with quota systems to regulate the size of catches.

Fishermen/women earn money only when they are at sea catching fish, so this role can involve working long hours.

The exact amount of time spent at sea depends on the type of vessel. Inshore fishing involves small boats fishing close to the shore and usually going out to sea each day. Large freezer ships can go to more distant fishing grounds and may be away for as long as two months at a time. For all vessels, time is also spent ashore maintaining nets and repairing the vessel.

The standard of accommodation and amenities on board depends on the boat's age, with many new boats built to a good standard of comfort below deck. Generally, facilities on board are usually basic and conditions are cramped.

Fishermen/women work out in the open for much of the time, although most boats now have shelter decks. They have to work in all types of weather. The work is very physically demanding and includes lifting and carrying, especially on smaller vessels which use more manual systems.

Starting salaries for trainee deckhands may be around £10,000 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

Fishing takes place all along the UK coast but the fishing industry is largely based around the Scottish islands, the east coast of Scotland, and the east and south-west coasts of England.

There are currently around 12,000 fishermen/women in the UK. Although these figures have slightly decreased in recent years, there are more vacancies than applicants.

Employers range from large companies to small family businesses with just one or two people. There are around 7,000 registered fishing vessels of different types and sizes. They include inshore fishing boats, trawlers, netters, crabbers and factory ships.

A key issue for the fishing industry is sustainability. The challenge is to protect the livelihood of fishermen/women while at the same time conserving fish stocks and promoting best environment practice.

Education and Training

No set qualifications are needed to start as a trainee deckhand, but entrants need to be physically fit, with good hearing and eyesight.

Most people enter through one of 15 Catching Sector Group Training Associations (GTAs) in the UK. Contact The Sea Fish Industry Authority to find the nearest GTA.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

All new entrants to the fishing industry must take four one-day safety training courses run by the GTA, which may be free of charge. These courses cover:

- Sea survival
- First aid
- Fire fighting
- Basic health and safety.

Apprenticeships can lead to an NVQ/SVQ in Marine Vessel Support (Deckhand) at Level 2. NVQ's/SVQ's in Marine Vessel Operations (Fishing) or Marine Engineering Operations at Level 3 are also available. The courses involve some college work but most of the time is spent at sea gaining practical experience. Successful apprentices can then take the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) oral exams that lead to the MCA Certificate of Competency.

With experience, it is possible to progress to NVQ's/SVQ's in Marine Vessel Operations or Marine Engineering Operations at Level 4.

Short courses are also available in navigation, engineering and fishing vessel stability.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A fisherman/woman needs to:

  • Be able to cope with being away from home, sometimes for long periods.
  • Be physically fit, with plenty of energy and stamina.
  • Be able to swim.
  • Be able to work in difficult and cramped conditions.
  • Work well as part of a team.
  • Work safely at all times.
  • Be willing to undertake a range of tasks.
  • Be able to follow instructions and explain things clearly to others.

In addition to these, a skipper needs:

  • A good knowledge of the sea and seamanship.
  • A good knowledge of the mechanics and engineering of the vessel and equipment.
  • To have good leadership skills.
  • To be decisive and able to deal calmly with emergency situations.

Your Long Term Prospects

There is a set career path within the fishing industry and fishermen/women can follow either the deck route or the engineering route.

Deck Route - an experienced deckhand can progress with further training to ship's mate and eventually skipper.

Engineering Route - an entrant starts as an engineer watch-keeper and progresses to second engineer, operating and maintaining all the ship's mechanical and electrical equipment. Further promotion is to chief engineer, overseeing all engineering work, monitoring instruments and dealing with any engineering emergencies.

With the right qualifications and experience, they may also be able to work on foreign fishing vessels.

It may also be possible to move into areas such as the Merchant Navy, vessel support, fish farming, harbour tug work, ferries or oil and gas exploration.

Self-employment is common. Some fishermen/women buy a small fishing vessel, either on their own or in partnership with other experienced people. This may involve investing a large amount of money.

Get Further Information

Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA),
Seafarer Training and Certification Branch,
Spring Place, 105 Commercial Road,
Southampton SO15 1EG
Tel: 023 8032 9231

National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations (NFFO),
30 Monkgate, York, YO31 7PF
Tel: 01904 635432

Scottish Fishermen's Federation,
24 Rubislaw Terrace, Aberdeen AB10 1XE
Tel: 01224 646944

The Sea Fish Industry Authority,
St Andrew's Dock, Hull HU3 4QE
Tel: 01482 327 837

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