Graying of the fleet

Alistair Gardiner/Kodiak Daily Mirror

Boats sit in St. Paul Harbor last week. 

A group of five researchers have reached the end of a four-year research project that was aimed at analyzing and tackling the issue of the aging fishing workforce in Alaska. 

The project, which used Bristol Bay and the Kodiak Archipelago as case studies, looked at barriers of entry for young people entering the industry and possible ways to address this.

Working under funds from the North Pacific Research Board and Alaska Sea Grant, a team from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, NOAA’s Alaska Sea Grant program and the Alaska Marine Conservation Council interviewed community members and young fishermen, as well as analyzing international efforts to combat the problem. 

The researchers have now begun to publish their findings beginning with a report titled “Turning the Tide: How can Alaska address the ‘graying of the feet’ and loss of rural fisheries access?” The report lays out in detail the causes of the barriers of entry for young fishermen, examines international programs and policies created to combat the problem elsewhere, and lists five recommendations to help combat the issue in Alaska.

One of the study’s authors, Danielle Ringer, is a research associate with UAF and works at the Kodiak Seafood and Marine Science Center. In an email, Ringer wrote  “In 2012, the Alaska State Legislature passed a resolution stating that the graying of the fleet is a pressing area of concern for the entire state ... A 2013 study confirmed that barriers to entry are the most commonly perceived negative impacts of catch share programs.”

Ringer explained that this project is the first in-depth investigation that seeks to better understand the problem and to develop mechanisms to help address it in Alaska.

The study found that privatizing fisheries access and therefore introducing the need to purchase permits and quota has “created large financial and other barriers to entry for the next generation of fishermen and has especially impacted small rural fishing communities.” 

There are currently five of these privatized access programs in place in the North Pacific, including the halibut and sablefish IFQ program (1995), American Fisheries Act pollock cooperatives program (1999), Bering Sea Aleutian Island (BSAI) crab rationalization program (2005), Bering Sea nonpollock groundfish (“Amendment 80” feet) trawl fishery (2008), and Gulf of Alaska Rockfish Program (2010). 

According to the report, the privatization of fisheries access has resulted barriers to entry in a number of different ways, including the increased cost of acquiring fishing permits and quotas and a loss of permits and quota in coastal communities, which leaves little opportunity for youth to enter the fisheries. 

Alaska’s rural fishing communities have seen a net loss of nearly 2,500 locally held commercial fishing permits since the state began limiting entry in 1975. This is due to permits being transferred out of these communities, migrating out of communities (with their holders) or being canceled by the state.

The report states that these challenges are compounded for young rural Alaskans by factors like lack of credit, poor credit history, or other legal issues. Other financial challenges that were identified in the study include unstable markets and a lack of experience managing debt and small businesses. 

Of the permits that do remain in rural Alaska, an increasingly aging fishing workforce hold them. In 1975, 50 percent of all rural local permits were held by fishermen under 40 years old. By 2016, the number of young fishermen who hold permits is almost half that. According to the report, in the rural communities of the Kodiak Archipelago there’s been a decrease of more than 80 percent in young people who hold salmon seine permits.

The report also notes that, though some youth are managing to obtain salmon limited entry permits, it is becoming increasingly difficult to survive off of one fishery alone.

The study also examined barriers to accessing fishing that are social in nature. These include: “a lack of experience, knowledge, and family connections to fishing; discouragement from pursuing fishing as a career; and substance abuse and related problems in communities.” 

Though the report identified a number of local and state programs set up to financially assist those entering the industry, many of these are limited in scope or underutilized. For example, the Limited Entry Educational permits, which were created under the Limited Entry system established in 1974. Under this program, the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission can issue educational permits to accredited educational institutions in Alaska, which offer industry-related training. The report states, however, that “educational permits are an underutilized teaching tool in the state. To date, the CFEC has only issued educational permits to 10 institutions.”

Many of the report’s five concluding recommendations are based off of programs and policies that have proved successful in places like Norway, Iceland and Canada and other U.S. states. The first of the five is to “Explore non-market based access to commercial fishing,” and the report cites two programs in Iceland that demonstrate the viability of taking such action. The examples given are a “limited community quota freely accessible for fishing community residents and… quota-free fisheries restricted by landings and season.” 

Other examples include recruitment quotas available to fishermen under the age of 30 in Norwegian fisheries and student licensing in the Maine lobster fishery. The report states that “nonmarket access provides an opportunity for participants to gain experience, learn fishing skills, and/or earn fishing income without the financial burden and risks of purchasing market-based access rights.” One of the options discussed under this banner is setting up “family trusts”, in which family members would be cosigners and share ownership until the younger generation is ready to take full control.

Another of the report’s recommendations is the creation of mentorship or apprenticeship programs to provide experience and pathways to ownership, like those used in the Maine lobster fishery. The report suggests that programs like this could also provide financial support for vessel and gear purchases by new participants, as is the case in the Prince Edward Island lobster fishery in eastern Canada. Educational programs, the report states, could focus on both the practical fishing skills and related business and financial knowledge, as well as the need for cultural messaging and incorporating fishing concepts into curriculum. 

The study also suggests “developing mechanisms… to protect local access and wider use of super-exclusive registration in state fisheries.” Among the suggested actions is introducing fishing access that is “anchored to a region or community,” which would create fishing access that cannot migrate or be sold away from a fishery dependent community. Other ideas in this section included amending or replicating the Capital Construction Fund to allow crewmembers (as opposed to permit holders exclusively) to save tax-free earnings from fishing in an account that could be put toward the purchase of vessel. 

The final two recommendations in the report are support from local governments for “local infrastructure to maintain local fisheries” and to “establish a statewide Fishing Access for Alaskans Task Force to review and consider collaborative solutions.” 

The report suggests that this task force could be similar to the current Mariculture Task Force, and could be established by administrative order with a zero fiscal note. If established this group could take steps toward the implementation of the priorities identified in the Governor’s 2014 transition report on fisheries.

In an email, Ringer wrote, “We hope that there will be a wide readership comprised of a diverse set of fisheries stakeholders including prospective, active and retired fishermen, community members, local community leaders, Board of Fish members, North Pacific Fishery Management Council members and Alaska legislators, to name a few.”

In addition to this report, the researchers aim to publish three journal articles this winter, which will focus on the ethnographic results of the study in Bristol Bay and Kodiak as well as student survey results. 

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