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Fish Factor

Merchant Marines Shipping Industry Offers Careers To Displaced Workers
By Laine Welch


October 24, 2005

Crabbers who find themselves without jobs can avail themselves of better careers in the merchant marine shipping industry - and get trained for free. In fact, the opportunity is open for displaced salmon fishermen, loggers, or almost anyone who has been run out of business by the economics of free trade.
jpg Laine Welch

Since 2003 the Seafarers International Union (SIU) and the Ketchikan-based non-profit SEA Link have partnered to recruit and train dislocated workers from the fishing industry for hundreds of jobs aboard large ocean going vessels around the world. Using federal funds administered by the Department of Labor's Division of Business Partnerships, eligible people are sent to the SIU center in Piney Point, Maryland, regarded as providing some of the best merchant marine training programs in the world.

Fishermen can start, for example, by becoming certified through a one month Specially Trained Ordinary Seaman's program. "We pay to get them there, plus tuition, room and board - we end up spending close to $10,000 per person for the STOS program," said SEA Link director Ralph Mirsky. Another eight month program targeted to younger workers provides training for unlicensed apprenticeships. After the training is completed, the Seafarers International Union guarantees a job. "That's what makes us unique. As far as I know, we are the only maritime training group that guarantees job placement. It's not just training for trainings sake," said SIU port agent Tracey Mayhew in Anchorage.

Mayhew said examples of positions would be as crew with Alaska Tanker Company, the missile defense platform located near Adak, TOTE and Horizon Lines, civilian crewed Navy ships and military sea lift commands, as well as on Norwegian cruise ships in Hawaii. "In fact, two new cruise ships are coming on line which will open up thousands of jobs," Mayhew added. Average starting wages for merchant mariners are about $3,500 per month, plus benefits including vacation pay, medical/dental coverage, retirement and pension plans.

Another benefit is that anyone participating in the SIU training programs can continue to go back to school to upgrade their training at no cost. "Each time they do, they are giving themselves a pay raise as well as increasing their skills," Mayhew said. SEA Link's Mirsky pointed out: "You can take advantage of the training and you do not have to take a job with the Seafarers Union. You can shop those credentials elsewhere and they are some of the best in the world."

So far more than 200 salmon fishermen have participated in the training program, and Mayhew said they are just beginning to get a feel for the numbers of displaced workers from the Bering Sea crab fisheries which began in August. She stressed that the SIU training builds on the experiences fishermen already have, and that the Coast Guard credits them for some or all of their sea time. "It really puts them on a fast track for upgrades instead of having to start at ground zero," she said.

Ralph Mirsky of Ketchikan added that there is a severe shortage of mariners from captains to deckhands in the merchant marine shipping industry. "Anyone who loves working on the ocean and has been displaced is crazy not to take advantage of this," he said. Funding for the training programs runs through December 31, and it is not known if it will be continued. Call SEA Link in Ketchikan toll free at 888-577-7453, or the Seafarers International Union in Anchorage at 907-561-4988.

SKY HIGH PRICES -Less than a month remains in the halibut and black cod seasons and prices are higher than ever. So far, nearly 53 million pounds of halibut have crossed the Alaska docks. That's 93 percent of the catch limit leaving, just over four million pounds to go. Fishermen have learned to pace their landings to keep demand high by eager (mostly) U.S. buyers, and prices are through the ceiling. A sampler: at Kodiak, halibut was fetching $3.05 for 10-20 pounders, $3.20 for 20-40's and $3.35 for 40 ups. Those prices are an increase of 30 cents a pound since August. At Dutch Harbor, halibut prices were up a dime or more to $2.90, $3.05 and $3.25. Seward prices had increased more than 50 cents at a whopping $3.50, $3.65 and $3.95 a pound. In Southeast Alaska, halibut prices were reported at $3.15, $3.25 and $3.40 and expected to go even higher. For black cod (sablefish), close to 90 percent of that nearly 36 million pound quota has been taken, with four million pounds to go. Black cod prices are broken out in five weights and in Kodiak ranged from $3.05 to $4.30 a pound. At Dutch Harbor, which interestingly has the second highest landings after Seward, black cod was fetching $3.00 to $4.25 a pound. Seward prices were $2.90 to $4.25, and in Southeast black cod was priced at $2.80 to $4.25, with reports of 4$.35 to $4.60 at Sitka. Alaska's halibut and black cod fisheries began this year on February 29 and will end on November 15th.

FROZEN SEAFOOD SOARS - The continuing trends towards convenient and healthier foods are driving a strong market for so called "alternative seafood" - meaning frozen and shelf stable fish in sealed pouches. According to the U.S. Market for Seafood Report from Market Research Publisher's Packaged Facts, sales will top $6 billion by 2009.

Even as marketers and nutritionists tout the health benefits of fish, the market for fresh fish has declined of late due to such factors as availability, price, and fears over mercury and other contaminants. On the other hand, that's boosted sales of frozen and pouched seafood products, and many major players are using them to build consumer confidence. That's not been lost on Alaska producers - for several years, the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute has been promoting a Cook It Frozen campaign in supermarkets to encourage consumers to eat salmon and other seafood year round. "They get to taste it and see that it is a superior product and that frozen should not have a stigma attached to it. They learn that in many cases, it's better than the fresh stuff they're getting," said ASMI director Ray Riutta.

Packaged Facts said frozen seafood has become the fastest growing industry sector since 2000, with sales approaching $2 billion in 2004. Increased promotions, greater consumer acceptance of frozen seafood, and advanced storing techniques all played a major role in boosting sales.

CLEANING UP - The call is out for a Marine Debris Project Coordinator to develop and implement a program to clean up Alaska's waters and coasts. It's part of an ongoing effort by the Juneau-based Marine Conservation Alliance, which has secured grants to fund the position. Duties include: grant management; marine debris identification, assessment and removal; reporting and recordkeeping; contract management; community outreach; and public relations. "We're excited about expanding our program and working with organizations and coastal communities around Alaska to make sure we have a clean environment for our fisheries and coastal regions," said MCA director Dave Benton. Contact the MCA at or call (907) 523-0731. Position description is available at RFP for Marine Debris Project Coordinator. pdf . Deadline is November 1.


Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's seafood industry since 1988. Her Fish Factor column appears weekly in over a dozen papers and websites. Her Fish Radio programs air on 27 stations across Alaska.


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