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Union Apprentices Helping Restore America’s Fisheries, Expand Fishing Opportunities

February 26, 2020 in Articles, Conservation News, Fishing, General, Press Release, Work Boots On The Ground


Operating Engineers apprentices donating their time and trade skills to construction of the new public pavilion at Smith Lake, Alabama.

Participants in labor union apprenticeship programs are volunteering their time and talents to improve America’s fisheries and expand opportunities for recreational anglers.

Apprentices pursuing careers in a variety of skilled trades are a potent source of volunteer labor in fisheries conservation, public access and outreach projects organized by the nonprofit Union Sportsmen’s Alliance (USA) Work Boots on the Ground program.

In Gloucester City, New Jersey, at the Operative Plasterers’ and Cement Masons’ International Association (OPCMIA) Local 592 training center, union apprentices are working in partnership with the Coastal Conservation Association-Maryland Chapter (CCA-MD) to enhance critical fisheries habitat in Chesapeake Bay.

“Each Saturday, a crew of 12 to 20 apprentice plasterers and concrete finishers set molds and pour concrete to make habitat structures called ‘reef balls,’” said training coordinator Anthony Ditri. “As an instructor, I like the project because it not only helps instill a strong work ethic, it gives the apprentices an opportunity to give back to the community. A lot of them are outdoors enthusiasts as well, and take great interest in learning more about how the bay’s ecosystem works.”

OPCMIA Local 592 apprentices working with the Coastal Conservancy Association-Maryland Chapter are creating structures that will improve fisheries habitat in Chesapeake Bay.

“The Coastal Conservation Association of Maryland is thrilled with the launch of our partnership with the USA and the Plasterers and Cement Masons,” said CCA-MD Chair Kevin O’Donovan. “The cement reef balls built by the Local 592 apprentices will serve as important habitat for oysters and fish and will contribute to the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay as well as enhance sportfishing opportunities.”

The goal of the ongoing project is to construct 1,500 reef balls over the next three years for the CCA-MD’s Living Reef Action Campaign (LRAC). That calculates to a donation of roughly 6,250 hours of skilled volunteer labor valued at more than $330,000. 

“Some of the structures are used to stabilize shorelines threatened by erosion, but many of them are used in building artificial reefs in the bay itself,” said CCA-MD Executive Director David Sikorski.

“Marine creatures such as oysters, anemones and barnacles inhabit the reefs,” he explained. “Through natural feeding processes, they filter algae and other harmful suspended solids from the water. Crustaceans and forage fish also flourish in the artificial reef ecosystem, providing a healthy food chain that supports striped bass and other popular gamefish.”

The list of conservation projects involving union apprentices is extensive, and includes the creation of a large public fishing pier and courtesy dock on Tennessee’s Lake Chickamauga; a kayak launch dock and other refuge-enhancement projects at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, located six miles from downtown Philadelphia; and a tournament weigh-in pavilion at Smith Lake, Alabama.

At Smith Lake, apprentices are helping create the pavilion at no cost to the local community through a partnership between the USA, B.A.S.S. and Alabama Power. “I’ve had 24 different apprentices working and training at the Smith Lake project over the past couple of months,” said International Union of Operating Engineers (Operating Engineers) Local 312 training coordinator Lee Smith.

Slated for a spring completion, the state-of-the art structure will boost fish survival rates, provide shade and shelter for weigh-in ceremonies and help generate millions of dollars in tournament-related revenue for the local economy. It will be open to recreational anglers as well as high school, college, amateur and professional tournaments.

Alabama fisheries biologists are restoring reservoir habitat with spider block fish attractors built by UBC Local 318 and Millwright and Machinery Erectors Local 1192 apprentices.

Another current project, again in Alabama, involves union apprentices donating their skills to build “spider block” fish attractors for the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (ADCNR). The attractors—which help replace natural cover such as trees and brush that deteriorate over time in a manmade reservoir—quickly become home to aquatic plants, insects, baitfish and crustaceans, which in turn provide forage for crappies, bass and other gamefish.

United Brotherhood of Carpenters Local 318 apprentices, at their training center in Pelham, Alabama, built 100 spider blocks which have been placed in Pickwick and Little Bear reservoirs. Another group of 100 are being constructed at the Florence, Alabama, training center by Millwright and Machinery Erectors Local 1192 apprentices.

“In all, 30 apprentices volunteered about two days’ time (960 hours) to put together the first 100 spider blocks,” said Jay Schuelly, training coordinator at the Pelham facility. “I see it not only as a way for the union to do something for the anglers and community as a whole, but also as an opportunity to show our neighbors and friends what being a union member is all about.”

The apprentices’ willingness to lend a hand is exactly what the ADCNR needed, according to state fisheries biologist Kyle Bolton, who coordinates Alabama’s aquatic habitat recovery program. “We always seem to have a surplus of materials, but lack the manpower to build the spider blocks,” he said. “We and the angling public are very fortunate to have the union members and the Union Sportsmen’s Alliance help us with that.”

Rarely do government conservation agencies have the funds or human resources to cover all the projects they’d like to complete, and that’s where the USA volunteers step in.

“Many state and federal agencies, as well as conservation nonprofits, are looking for help with their habitat restoration efforts, and we’re proud to provide it,” said USA Conservation Manager Rob Stroede. “It’s a perfect fit for union apprentice programs everywhere, and we encourage all training coordinators and apprentices to join forces with us for conservation.”


Union Sportsmen’s Alliance, Alabama Power and B.A.S.S. Break Ground on Smith Lake Pavilion

January 14, 2020 in Conservation News, Fishing, General, Press Release, Work Boots On The Ground

Union Sportsmen’s Alliance (USA) volunteers have broken ground on a new public fishing tournament weigh-in pavilion at Alabama’s scenic Smith Lake. The state-of-the art structure is being created at no cost to the local community through a partnership between the USA, B.A.S.S. and Alabama Power.

Located between Birmingham and Huntsville, 21,000-acre Smith Lake is popular with tournament and recreational anglers from across the nation. Its deep, clear waters hold a variety of gamefish including largemouth and spotted bass, sunfish and striped bass. The lake is nationally known for trophy size spotted bass. In fact, it produced the Alabama state record spotted bass in 1978—an 8-pound, 15-ounce behemoth that also set a world record at the time.

The new pavilion will help anglers enjoy Smith Lake’s bounty while protecting these priceless resources. It will feature water access and the capacity to hold fish tanks to help reduce stress on fish and increase release survival rates at the weigh-in site. The covered facility also will provide shade for tournament weigh-in ceremonies.

Located at the Lewis Smith Lake Dam Boat Ramp, the pavilion will be used by recreational anglers as well as high school, college, amateur and professional tournaments. The pavilion will be open to the public when not in use by tournaments.

Smith Lake is a popular destination for tournament and recreational anglers from across the United States.

All community residents will benefit, as tournaments are a boon to the local economy. For example, each B.A.S.S. Elite Series tournament drives in excess of $1.1 million in direct economic impact. Thanks to media exposure, each event also generates an average of $17.9 million in additional tourism revenue within two years of the tournament.

“This pavilion will provide a much-needed place for organizations to hold their weigh-ins, from local bass clubs to the largest Bassmaster Opens tournaments,” said B.A.S.S. Conservation Director Gene Gilliland. “Alabama Power’s support of this project, combined with the engineering expertise donated by the Alabama Department of Conservation & Natural Resources as part of their larger boat ramp renovation project and the incredible construction skills of the Union Sportsmen’s Alliance volunteers, are very much appreciated.”

“We are thrilled to work with B.A.S.S., the Union Sportsmen’s Alliance, the Alabama Department of Conservation & Natural Resources and the local community to construct this pavilion that will enhance this access point on Smith Lake,” said Zeke Smith, Alabama Power executive vice president of external affairs. “We look forward to it opening and playing a part in showcasing the state of Alabama’s beautiful waterways.”

Construction on the pavilion project is being done by skilled labor union volunteers through the USA’s Work Boots on the Ground (WBG) conservation program. “We’re proud to partner with B.A.S.S. and Alabama Power on this project, which will benefit Smith Lake anglers for years to come,” said Union Sportsmen’s Alliance Conservation Manager Robert Stroede. “Our union volunteers are passionate about the outdoors and conservation, and they enjoy sharing their time and trade skills giving back to their communities.”

Volunteers from the following unions and groups are currently donating their time and job skills to complete the project: Operating Engineers Local 312, Laborers Local 559, Carpenters Locals 318 and 1209, Millwrights Local 1192 and Iron Workers Local 92. The project is also supported by the Alabama AFL-CIO and the USA’s Alabama State Conservation Dinner. Volunteers from additional unions are also expected to participate, including the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW).

Union Sportsmen’s Alliance volunteers began construction of the new public pavilion at Smith Lake, Alabama.

Stroede estimates union volunteers will donate more than 1,000 hours of skilled labor valued at over $50,000 to complete the pavilion. In all, he expects the value of donated labor, materials and machinery to top $100,000.

Casey Shelton, business manager of IBEW System Council U-19, was thrilled to see union volunteers tackle the project. “As part of the Union Sportsmen’s Alliance and a high school fishing coach, I am proud to see this project underway and excited about the positive impact it will have on the fast-growing sport of high school fishing,” said Shelton.

“This is a great example of a diverse group of entities coming together to achieve one goal. We are proud to be a part of this project and continue our mission of accessibility to the natural resources of our great state,” added Chris Blankenship, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation & Natural Resources.