Meet the Apprentices
“I couldn’t feel my hands and they hurt to bend. I had never used my hands that way before,” says Evan Adams, describing how he felt after his first week as a deckhand on the fishing vessel Harvest Moon out of Point Judith. “I didn’t want to do it anymore because I was so tired … the only thing that kept me going after the first week was seeing the paycheck.”
As a deckhand, Adams’ primary job is to make sure the lobster pots are set correctly and that the rope is running clear so it’s not wrapped up around anything or anyone. After his body acclimated to the physical demands of these tasks, Adams says that what now keeps bringing him back to the dock is the love of fishing and of the ocean. “I’ve always wanted to be a fisherman and this is me wanting to do something with my life.”
Adams knew exactly what he wanted to be as kid, inspired by his dad and their fishing trips. “When I was younger I used to go [recreational] fishing with my dad all of the time,” he says. “In the sixth grade, I told my teacher that my occupation would be a fisherman.” But that path wasn’t always clear, as Adams had no connections through friends or family to the commercial industry. This is what Adams thinks prevents others from entering the profession.
“The things I think that are holding younger kids from becoming fishermen are not knowing how to become [one] … I had no idea how to get into it.”
After graduating high school, Adams says he was working dead-end jobs until a friend tagged him in a Facebook post for an apprenticeship program by the Commercial Fisheries Center of Rhode Island and the University of Rhode Island. The program is aimed at training “greenhorns” to become commercial fishermen in order to sustain a workforce that is getting older. Adams, who is 21, was the youngest of 12 to be accepted for the program’s first run in 2017 and is now working his second season as a deckhand.
“[The apprenticeship] was probably the most helpful thing I have ever done,” he says. “They taught us how to mend nets, how to hook up lines, how to hook up hooks. They taught us all about the management of fish, the population [of fish], what’s decreasing, and what’s increasing.”
(Above) Evan Adams knew he wanted to be on the water but didn’t know how to become a fisherman until he discovered an apprenticeship program aimed at getting the next generation started in commercial fishing.
But a lot of the training at the time focused on the skills needed for working on draggers and not on lobster boats. “Everything I learned on the lobster boat was brand new to me,” he says, adding that the apprenticeship now includes introductions to scalloping and lobstering. “It took me a little while to learn running and stacking the pots the right way, but [my captain] showed me multiple times until I got it 100 percent.”
While he has progressed over the last year, Adams says he still faces challenges. To get through 24-hour-long days when his boat goes offshore scalloping, he drinks soda to stay awake. And occasionally he still gets seasick, something he says crew members always need to be prepared for. “[Seasickness] the worst thing you can imagine … it drains your whole body. You have to keep moving.”
Despite all this, Adams isn’t deterred from his ambition to be a captain himself one day. “I’ve actually been talking to my captain the last couple of months about getting my own boat and starting with my own conch license,” he says, perhaps working up to a multipurpose license, which could cost $20,000.
“I’m in to be in it. I’m not just looking to make quick money and leave. I plan on doing this for multiple years.”
“Fishing is by far—and I’ve done a lot of different things—it is the most physically demanding, most exhausting job I could have had or that I could imagine having,” says Stephanie Hryzan. And yet, she wakes up every morning ready to return to work on the Cody, a dragger docked in Point Judith.
Hryzan never pictured herself in commercial fishing when she was growing up in Charlestown, although her father is a fisherman. “I barely saw my dad when I was a kid when he was at the plant or out fishing.”
Like her father, Hryzan says she always loved the ocean growing up and was “obsessed with marine life” —so much so that she decided to pursue a degree in marine biology at the University of Tampa. But she soon realized, however, that research labs were not for her.
“I like the hands-on aspect,” she says, adding that in order for her get a job in the field, such as in the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM), she would need a master’s degree, and she was looking at $100,000 of debt just from her undergraduate education.
She instead pursued a degree in sociology, and after graduation found herself back in Rhode Island selling cars. But working on the water was always in the back of her mind.
Hryzan left sales to become an observer on a scallop vessel and discovered that not only did she enjoy being out on a commercial fishing boat, but also that fishermen could earn a good salary—the kind that could finally help pay off some credit card debt that had accumulated in addition to the student loans. Hryzan saw an advertisement on Facebook by the Commercial Fisheries Center of Rhode Island promoting the commercial fishing apprenticeship and applied right away.
As a member of the program’s first class of students, Hryzan says, “I learned a lot that I wouldn’t have known,” but adds that most of her education has been hands-on aboard the Cody. Nevertheless, she says, “They did the best they could for testing out this new program with 12 random people,” half of whom are still fishing.
When asked about any mistakes she may have made in her first fishing trip, Hryzan laughs.
“I still make mistakes, it’s never-ending,” she says. “A lot of it comes second nature to you after a while. Getting used to hooking up the door and setting wire … and then when you have to change nets over at sea, dealing with ground cables and top legs and bottom legs. All that stuff honestly still confuses me when we’re doing it out there because you just end up with a big pile of gear on deck. And there’s a lot of tension, you’ve got four different personalities (on deck). I have a very patient captain, and that helps.”
She credits the captain and the rules of conduct on her boat for keeping her crew together for a year—a long time in the fishing industry, where, she says, people often hop from one boat to another due to personality conflicts. She herself plans to stick with the industry for at least a few more years:
“For the most part I enjoy being on the water, not having to punch a clock every day, so to speak. I mean, come wintertime, I’ll be complaining about that, wishing I had a land job. Now that I’ve had a taste the last few years of being out on the water and … making better money than I’ve ever made at a land job … I think that’s how people get sucked into fishing.”
Still, she says, she does not want to be a captain. “I don’t say that because I’m not ambitious; it’s not me. There’s a lot of pressure on those guys to be captain and it’s a kind of stress … it’s a sacrifice you make,” she says. “I think you also need to really start from a younger age. A lot of these guys have been doing it since they were right out of high school, whereas I started 15 years after that. There’s a lot to learn.”
As for the future, “I don’t think I’ll do it the rest of my life, because I want to have a life … I don’t know what I would actually want to do for a career, without having that master’s degree to get that DEM job,” she says.
“In which case I still would be making less money than I am now.”