By DREW HERMAN
In the course of conducting a decade of interviews in Alaska fishing communities, Courtney Carothers has often heard people refer to the "graying of the fleet" as it seems like fewer young people consider commercial fishing careers.
"I think the general perception is there's a huge economic hurdle," she said.
The question of how the next generation of fishermen will get into the industry prompted Carothers and some of a group of colleagues to launch a projected four-year study.
An assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Carothers knows the Kodiak-area fishing community well from a previous study into how people here have experienced transitions in the industry. For this new study she will have on-site assistance from graduate student Danielle Ringer, who grew up in A Homer fishing family.
"Basically, this is the kick-off week," Ringer said. "I'll be working in this for the next two years."
Ringer will be interviewing established fishermen and surveying youth in town and in nearby villages. Others will conduct the same research in Bristol Bay communities.
The researchers want to know what considerations factor into young people's perception about the viability of becoming professional fishermen. Higher hurdles have led to fewer of them going into what has traditionally been the economic mainstay of coastal life.
"They even call them the 'lost generation' in the rural communities," Carothers said.
Carothers has some ideas at a few of the answers they might find.
"It seems to be the trend that both the gear and boat are more expensive," she said.
It may also be that youth are told to look for more "viable careers" or that they seek the excitement of life outside Alaska and their small home communities.
The questions have drawn interest and concern outside academia.
The North Pacific Research Board is funding the project, while the Alaska Legislature named the graying of the fleet a high priority for study and action.
Carothers hopes the youth study will lead to a set of recommendations for state and federal policies to help people start fishing careers while maintaining the character of their communities and the sustainability of its resources.
"We're certainly trying to look from a community-based perspective," she said. "Kodiak without fishing is a very different community."
Although they don't have a similar rigorous study from earlier generations to serve as a baseline for comparison, statistics support the idea that buying a boat or making a living as a crewmember was easier 40 years ago, before limited-entry fishing began with the salmon harvest.
"From earlier research we have a sense of that," Carothers said.
To sort out the complex story of what happened since then, the researchers will seek established fishermen with several years in the industry and ask how they got there. Surveys of younger people will ask whether they are interested in becoming fishermen and what hurdles they believe stand in the way.
Kodiak will not have to wait four years to hear how the study is going. The investigators plan to make periodic reports to keep the community informed and connected.
"I want to make sure people down the line still have that lifestyle if they want," Ringer said.
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