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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.”


John Heinz NWR Enhancements Earn Union Sportsmen’s Alliance 2019 Project of the Year Award

August 21, 2019 in Conservation News, General, Press Release, Work Boots On The Ground


Union volunteers’ efforts to enhance visitors’ experiences at the nation’s first Urban National Wildlife Refuge earned the Union Sportsmen’s Alliance (USA) 2019 Project of the Year Award.

Located just six miles from downtown Philadelphia, the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge conserves critical wildlife habitat of the Tinicum Tidal Marsh. With 35 million people living within a two-hour drive, the refuge also offers tremendous opportunities for connecting community residents with the outdoors.

John Heinz NWR welcomes 260,000 visitors annually with a wide variety of interpretive programs and recreational activities including fishing, kayaking, hunting and wildlife watching. It also serves as a living classroom, offering environmental education and outreach programs that touch the lives of 17,000 area youth each season.

Unfortunately, funding and staff shortages left a number of maintenance projects at this urban treasure undone. When USA Conservation Advisory Committee member Connie Parker learned that parts of the refuge infrastructure were in dire need of attention, she connected the USA with Department of the Interior (DOI) Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks Aurelia Skipwith. 

In turn, Skipwith was instrumental in connecting the USA with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff, who administer the National Wildlife Refuge System, and getting the project started. Organized through the USA’s Work Boots on the Ground (WBG) conservation program, these efforts have completed a series of improvements.

Union volunteers spent nearly 700 hours completing a series of projects to improve visitor experiences at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge.

In 2018, union volunteers from four Philadelphia-area locals donated nearly 700 hours of skilled labor valued at more than $36,000 to make critical road repairs, install a new non-motorized boat launch and restore a popular wildlife observation tower. Machinery usage valued at $20,000 pushed the total project value over $56,000. With work continuing in 2019, the value of refuge enhancements that benefit local residents continues to climb.

Volunteers from the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers Local 14, International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 21, International Union of Operating Engineers Local 542 and United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers and Allied Workers Local 30 donated their time and varied trade skills to the project.

“Our engineers came in to stabilize and resurface the refuge’s wetland loop road while the construction and painting crews worked on the kayak/canoe launch and tower,” said John Stahl, volunteer project leader and apprenticeship training director for Insulators Local 14.

Volunteers scraped and repainted the double-deck observation tower, one of the refuge’s oldest and most-used features, and rebuilt its deteriorating access walkway. They also installed a support foundation for a new floating boat launch and constructed a hinged walkway that allows the platform to rise and fall with tidal fluctuations. 

Such improvements were godsends to refuge staff and will enhance the experience of all visitors. “What these volunteers did here really benefits the public by making sure we have safe and equal access for everyone who comes to visit,” said John Heinz Refuge Manager Lamar Gore. “If we didn’t have these skilled volunteers through the Union Sportsmen’s Alliance, we would have to close some things down for longer periods of time. These guys help us keep things moving, which means people can continue to fully appreciate this space.”

“We’re very honored to support the National Wildlife Refuge System’s efforts to protect our precious natural areas for current and future generations of Americans to enjoy,” said USA Director of Conservation and Community Outreach Forrest Parker. “And we are proud of the many union volunteers and their selfless dedication to restoring these features that are so important to the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge. Their accomplishments truly deserve the recognition the Project of the Year Award brings. 

“Every one of the people who donated their free time to work on this great project deserves credit,” Stahl said during the award presentation at the USA’s recent Fundraising Gala in Washington, D.C. “Because coming together as union brothers and sisters to support our communities is what it’s all about. And I think that’s what the presentation of this award really shows. I’m very proud to be part of a brotherhood that cares enough to give back.”

The DOI has also acknowledged the importance of such public-private partnerships. On September 29, 2018, the USA joined DOI officials at John Heinz NWR to celebrate the first Urban National Wildlife Refuge Day and kickoff of refuge-enhancement projects. A coalition of partners including Pure Fishing, the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies Foundation, Ducks Unlimited, the National Wild Turkey Federation and Plano Synergy supported the event.

Refuge improvements included the creation of a launching dock for kayaks and canoes.

Union Volunteers Make Salt Lake City Area Take Kids Fishing Event A Success

June 11, 2019 in Articles, Conservation News, Fishing, General, Press Release, Work Boots On The Ground

The waters of Fairmont Park Pond were the backdrop for more than 80 young anglers and their families who gathered on June 8, 2019, for the inaugural Salt Lake City Area Take Kids Fishing Day event, a cooperative effort between the Union Sportsmen’s Alliance (USA), Utah Building and Construction Trades Council (BCTC) and Salt Lake City Trails and Natural Lands.

Union volunteers from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 354 and International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 3 donated their time and expertise to introduce both kids and adults to fishing and make their time on the water a success. Each youth received a free rod and reel courtesy of Pure Fishing, as well as a gift bag with other items including game calls donated by Plano Synergy.

The Salt Lake City-area event was part of a series of free, community-based youth outreach activities organized under Work Boots on the Ground—the USA’s flagship conservation program. It was also supported by national conservation partners Provost Umphrey Law Firm, Pure Fishing, Plano Synergy and the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation.

The USA supplied all bait and tackle needed for the budding anglers to bring in plenty of rainbow trout and catfish, which are stocked in Fairmont Park’s pond by the Utah Division of Wildlife as part of its community fishing program. After the fishing, all participants and their families enjoyed a picnic lunch at no cost.

Smiles were catchy when more than 80 youth and their families enjoyed the Salt Lake City Area Take Kids Fishing Day June 8.

Local event coordinator, union organizer and IBEW member Brad Baugh said the inaugural Salt Lake City-area event was a resounding success.

“It went very smooth and was well attended,” he said. “We had a whole bunch of people who’d never fished or were coming back to fishing after a long absence, so they were really excited about it—especially about being able to take home a new rod and reel. It was great to see grandparents fishing with their grandkids and taking trout home to eat for dinner.”

According to Baugh, events like this do far more than make memories in terms of shaping attitudes.

“A lot of times we talk to people who have negative opinions about unions,” he said. “When people have such a positive experience with a union-organized event, it helps them realize we’re all the same, and that we’re good people trying to make a living.”

Baugh also said the positive results of this year’s event and the smiling faces of all those who participated laid the groundwork for more Take Kids Fishing Days in years to come. “It was our first time, but we’re looking forward to doing a lot more,” he said.

USA Conservation Manager Robert Stroede estimated that 60 to 70 percent of the participants had never fished before. “Reaching these children is one of the reasons Take Kids Fishing Day events are so important to us,” he said. “Because research shows that youth who are introduced to fishing before the age of 14 are more likely to adopt it as a lifelong pastime.

“This is also a great example of what can be accomplished when local labor unions, union volunteers and partners like Salt Lake City Trails and Natural Lands and the Utah Division of Wildlife join forces with the USA and our national supporters to make a difference in the lives of children and their communities,” he added.