Rodney Dangerfield once said “It’s great to have grey hair. Ask anyone who’s bald.”

And one does not have to visit too many commercial fishing wharves and harbours across Atlantic Canada to see plenty of examples of that grey hair peeking out from under ball caps.

According to the federal government, for the first time in Canada’s history, there are now more individuals over the age of 65 than there are children under the age of 15.

In Atlantic Canada, more than one in three people is 55 and over, while that proportion drops below one in four in Alberta. Not only do the Atlantic provinces have older populations, but those populations have aged more rapidly in the past 30 years. These trends are attributable to regional differences in demographic behaviours, in particular the change over time in fertility and substantial losses to interprovincial migration. Furthermore, projections show that Atlantic provinces and their workforces will continue to age at a faster pace than the rest of Canada.

And nowhere is this aging workforce trend more evident than in the fishery.

However, is this trend predominant right across the entire Atlantic Canadian commercial fishery? Some might argue yes, but perhaps not in Southwest Nova Scotia.

If you travel from harbour to harbour and wharf to wharf in SW Nova, you will witness a real return to youth on the water. Not only are many deckhands under the age of 35 or 40, but many of the vessel captains are as well.

Young people in this region are once again realizing that the commercial fishing cannot only provide a good livelihood, but a stable career and future as well. Unfortunately, what is happening with younger fishing professionals turning to the sea in SW Nova still appears to be the exception, not the rule in other regions of Atlantic Canada.

In fact, in its 2022 Blue Economy Strategy, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) highlighted the issue of an aging commercial fishing workforce.

“Commercial fisheries have an aging workforce and the intergenerational transfer of licences and quota to youth is hampered by the high cost of entry and to purchase a vessel, alongside limited access to capital,” the DFO report explained.

To resolve these issues, the authors of the Blue Economy Strategy recommended that the industry:

  • Change licensing and management policies to support new entrants and facilitate access to capital.
  • Develop a national training/certification program modelled on Red Seal trade programs for fish harvesters.
  • Create a Youth Fish Harvesters’ Employment and Skills Program similar to one offered by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada for youth farmers.
  • Collaborate with industry organizations that are set up to deal with fisheries human resource needs and solutions.

These are all valid suggestions and industry stakeholders must understand that this problem is not going away and time is literally of the essence.

Our fishing brethren and competitors south of the border are also grappling with the same aging workforce issue and are offering solutions to overcome it.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recently stated that many U.S. commercial fishermen are on the cusp of retirement. “This greying of the fleet poses concerns for industry resilience and national food security if there are not enough young fishermen willing and able to take their place.”

NOAA Fisheries stated that it is working to encourage and support the next generation of U.S. commercial fishermen. “New research is the first to examine and compare the generational crisis across the fishing and farming industries. Based on their findings, the research team recommends steps to help young fishermen, modeled after long-established national programs that have successfully helped beginning farmers. New fishermen and farmers face formidable challenges to entry and success. Fishing and farming are both highly risky businesses—subject to weather, variable harvests, uncertain markets and climate change. At the same time, both industries require increasingly high start-up costs, for example, to purchase farmland, fishing boats, fishing permits, gear and constantly evolving technology.”

However, NOAA noted that while challenges are strikingly similar between farming and fishing, the level of national support is very different.

“In contrast to the decades-long national-level recognition of beginning farmer issues, the aging of the fishing industry was acknowledged only in the 2010s. Our findings show how relatively little there is to help young fishermen compared to farmers. In farming, there is a holistic, centralized, national-level approach. In fishing, it’s been from the ground up. They’ve been coming up with their own ways to address the problem with minimal funding through small programs across the country.”

Based on its findings, NOAA is recommending specific steps that can help support young fishermen entering the industry, including:

  • Develop a national census for fisheries participants.
  • Develop a program that directly targets new entry issues comparable to the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program.
  • Implement federal fisheries insurance programs inclusive of diverse target fisheries.
  • Develop comprehensive low-interest loan programs modeled after the Farm Service Agency loan programs.

It is clear this aging workforce issue is universal across the fishery, but steps have to be taken in each jurisdiction to aid in overcoming it. By addressing the issues facing new fishermen now, stakeholders can help build a new generation of commercial fishermen that is ready and capable of fishing our waters in the future.