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Massachusetts Captain Offers Classes for Aspiring Fishermen

Apr 19, 2019  | Ep4435

GLOUCESTER, Mass. (AP) — Capt. Joe Sanfilippo fished out of Gloucester for more than 20 years alongside siblings and family members. For much of that time, a seed was germinating.

Sanfilippo, 46, is the youngest of five boys and his training came from tough-love, working tutorials aboard the family's three 80-foot fishing vessels, particularly from his brother Dominic aboard the F/V Captain Gus.

"He taught me pretty much everything I know and gave me a passion and work ethic for being a commercial fisherman right from the start," Sanfilippo said. "I realized quickly that fishing is a way of life. It's not about the money. It's about the heritage."

Which brings us to the germinating seed. Sanfilippo, as the industry evolved, often thought there might be a better way to give aspiring commercial fishermen a head start entering the profession.

Now he is trying to pass along the very mechanics of working on a commercial fishing boat in a shoreside course called Extreme Gloucester Fishing that could serve as a template for reintroducing a new generation of fishing crew members to Gloucester's proudest profession.

"We need the young blood," said Sanfilippo, who now works as the engineer on the Beauport Princess, helping run the Cruiseport Gloucester cruise ship with Capt. John Randazzo. "Maybe more than ever."

No understatement, that.

Every analysis of the current state of commercial fishing in the Northeast ultimately finds its way to the usual suspects of problems and challenges. Chief among them are more restrictive regulations and tighter quotas, the wide-scale relocation of fishing stocks due to climate change, a consuming public willing to get most of its seafood from imports, an aging fleet of vessels, and a declining shoreside infrastructure.

Then there are the human elements.

It's not only the vessel fleet that is aging. The boat captains and owners are aging apace of their boats.

And unlike the industry's halcyon days, today there is no human pipeline funneling kids from the docks onto the boats as fledgling crew members, eager to learn the trade, earn a paycheck and perhaps rise up one day to own their own boats.

"I was 11 years old when I started," Sanfilippo said. "I lived on the docks. I lived over at Felicia Oil."

From the deck on up

Now he's trying to provide a forum to impart the intricacies of commercial fishing — what he calls "each individual piece of the puzzle" — including net mending, diesel mechanics, basic electronics, vessel handling, fishery regulations, fishing history and basic fishing knowledge.

"My goal is to have a commercial fishing training center in Gloucester, almost like a vocational school," Sanfilippo said.

Its mission, he said, would be to teach fishing basics for all manner of fisheries, from groundfishing to scalloping, lobstering and beyond.

"To me, it's one Mother Ocean," he said.

The meticulous and well-organized syllabus for "Extreme Gloucester Fishing" is designed for 830 class-hours, but the initial offerings begin more modestly in a from-the-deck-up approach.

On each of the past two Thursday nights, Sanfilippo held classes in the well-appointed basement space of Ken Hecht's building at 189 Main St.

These classes, which cost $40 each, spent two-and-a-half hours almost exclusively with the basics of net-mending. The next scheduled class is April 18. Same time, 6:30 to 9 p.m. Same place. Same topic.

"It doesn't matter what kind of fishing you might be doing, this is a skill that you will need," he told the students in the second class on an unseasonably cool April night.

The first class drew about 10. The second drew about half that, but included two returnees from the first class who clearly have been bitten by the commercial fishing bug.

As the new students entered the room, they found long tables. At each station, there was a copy of the applicable syllabus chapter on basic net mending and a bag containing the necessary tools — twine and mending needles for the students to keep. Around the room, incomplete segments of fishing nets hung from the ceiling.

Sanfilippo moved smoothly through an introduction that touched on the various types of trawling — pair, midwater, purse seine, otter and gillnetting — and the basic terminology of net mending.

The students were given a piece of paper illustrating a segment of net requiring repair. Sanfilippo walked them through the steps necessary for the proper repairs, which students sketched on the sheets in front of them.

Then they moved to the hanging net segments to turn theory into practice.

"We really find that it really helps them to do it on paper first, so they can really visualize what they need to do and how things come together," said Tiffany DeRobertis, Sanfilippo's colleague in Extreme Gloucester Fishing. "You've got to be able to visualize it before you master it."

'Easier than a moving deck'

Lindsay Polisson, one of the students, grew up in a Rockport fishing family and works by day as a conductor on the MBTA commuter rail system.

"My family is fishing and I grew up always being on the water," Polisson said. "But my dad told me, 'No fishing'."

But here she was, learning a skill that Polisson figured, if nothing else, could help her take care of her horses.

"At least I'll be able to mend my own hay nets," Polisson said.

And what did she think of the class?

"It was really great," she said. "Joe is awesome."

Sanfilippo has been able to delve into his own fishing family and his lifelong fishing contacts to secure some heavy-hitting adjunct instructors.

While he worked with the new students in the main room, the returnees retired to an upper room where they worked on more advanced net mending with Randazzo, one of the most respected captains in the port, and with Sam Sanfilippo, Joe's older brother and a respected commercial fisherman in his own right.

On the second night, they were joined by guests Justin Demetri of the Essex Shipbuilding Museum, who took his own turn at the mending twine, and Tommy Testaverde Sr., one of the most successful groundfisherman and boat operators on the harbor.

Testaverde, owner of the Midnight Sun that is run by his son Tommy Jr., spoke to the value of Joe Sanfilippo's vocational vision.

"It's really hard to get crews now," Testaverde Sr. said. "There's really nobody behind us ready to come up and learn how to fish. This is more visual and a little easier to learn it here in a classroom than on a moving deck. You've got to get started someplace."

For Sanfilippo, that is the whole idea.

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