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Graying of Alaska’s Fishing Fleet Puts Key Industry in Peril

With the average age of commercial fishers now over 50, the state is trying to figure out ways to break down barriers that are increasingly keeping young people from working the sea.

Written by Yereth Rosen Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
A salmon fisher in Alaska.Jean-Erick PASQUIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

KODIAK, Alaska – In this port town on a mountainous island in the Gulf of Alaska, fishing culture reigns supreme.

The picturesque harbor, filled with smells of fish and the incessant chirps of bald eagles that congregate en masse to snag easy meals, is the heart of the town. Rubber-soled fishing boots are de rigueur footwear for almost everyone, from elders to hipsters to toddlers. Garbage bins are designed to resemble vintage Alaska salmon cans. Salmon and surimi-crab salad, whipped up with fresh-caught fish, is on the menu at the local fast-food Subway franchise.

But even in Kodiak, one of the nation’s top seafood ports, commercial fishing is losing its luster with the younger generation. Many local youth see fishing as nothing more than a source of part-time or temporary work, not the basis for serious careers.

“It seems like they’re dipping their toes in it a little bit to see how the water feels. But they don’t really want to jump,” said Ryan Horwath, 39, owner of Pacific Cloud Seafoods, a small Kodiak company, and a board member of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.

Horwath came to Kodiak in 2003 from upstate New York to fish with his uncle, and even then, the outlook was gloomy for young fishers trying to enter the business. “To really focus on fishing was not recommended that much, even by some of the older generation,” he said.

A fishing boat in Kodiak, Alaska. (Yereth Rosen)

Once known for its young guns, Alaska’s commercial fishing fleet is now full of graybeards. The average Alaska fisher is now older than 50, according to the University of Alaska’s Sea Grant program. That is a big change from 1975, when fishers under 40 held half of commercial fishing permits in rural Alaska. The trend is particularly strong in small towns. In the Kodiak Archipelago, for instance, there has been an 80 percent drop in the number of young fishers holding salmon-seine permits.

The result is an existential threat to Alaska, said Paula Cullenberg, director of Alaska Sea Grant.

“We are a fishing state. It is the lifeblood and the economic engine of our coastal communities,” Cullenberg said. “Fishing is really part of our own identity as a state. There’s this vision that we’d like to maintain this as an honorable occupation that Alaskans are involved in.”

The seafood industry is one of Alaska’s biggest businesses, supporting 36,800 jobs and producing $2 billion in labor earnings and $5.2 billion in economic activity, second only to the oil and gas industry, according to a 2017 study commissioned by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. About 27,740 people were employed directly in harvesting fish, either as skippers or crewmembers. Alaskans accounted for a little over half of those workers, though only 38 percent of the harvested volume of fish came from state residents.

At the heart of the problem, experts have concluded, is “rationalization,” the system that has transformed Alaska fisheries from an open-access free-for-all into tightly managed harvests governed by quota shares and “limited-entry” permits that must be inherited or purchased – with prices that can soar well above $100,000.

Quota and permit systems have been introduced fishery by fishery in recent decades. The limited-entry system started in Alaska state waters in the 1970s and specifies who can fish but does not put absolute limits on individual harvesters. The system of individual transferable quotas for fisheries in federal waters began in the 1990s, and also limits how much each quota-holder may harvest.

Garbage bins in Kodiak, Alaska, are designed to resemble vintage Alaska salmon cans. (Yereth Rosen)

Quota and permit systems vary by species, gear type and geographic location, but they have a similar aim – to ensure that there are not too many boats chasing too few fish. Some are positive – more orderly and safe harvests and better quality control and better management to prevent overfishing and protect the ecosystem. But there are downsides. The systems erect barriers to entry, especially for young newcomers who lack financial resources to buy into the system. They erode community control because well-heeled outsiders can purchase quotas or permits from economically distressed locals.

Alaska Sea Grant has been working for years to find ways to lower those barriers. It has held seven nearly annual Young Alaska Fishermen Summit conferences to help harvesters network and brainstorm for ways to innovate and strengthen the industry and local participation.

Now Sea Grant has put its findings and recommendations into a report, “Turning the Tide,” that outlines a state strategy for developing a new generation of Alaska fishers.

The report borrows ideas from other fishing countries that have faced some similar challenges.

In Iceland, where entry-limiting quotas have been in place since the 1980s, there is a set-aside for small-scale local fishers who lack quota rights, the report notes. In Norway, where coastal fisheries have been divided up into quota shares since 1990, there are special “recruitment” quotas available to fishers under the age of 30, with no-cost applications. The report notes that Alaska could do something similar, carving out community shares that exist outside of the current transferable quota and permit systems.

A bill pending in the Alaska legislature, H.B. 188, would do something along those lines. It would authorize regional fisheries trusts that could dole out temporary permits to new entrants in state fisheries, “offering a stepping stone between deckhanding and individual permit ownership,” according to a statement from the bill’s sponsor, Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins of Sitka.

Another of the report’s recommendations is to establish student or apprentice licenses, similar to systems in place in Newfoundland and in Maine’s lobster fishery. To help keep quota shares in local hands and maintain diversified fisheries operations, the state could also adopt versions of measures used in Norway that restrict the transfer of quota shares to nonresidents, the report says.

In Alaska, local control has slipped away over time, especially in rural areas: Since 1975, when Alaska began limiting entry in commercial harvests, rural Alaska fishing communities have lost nearly 2,500 locally held permits, more than 30 percent of the total, the report notes.

One way to boost youth participation and local control is to build up publicly available fishing infrastructure. Easily accessed cold-storage facilities, cranes and industrial parks can support new industry entrants, the report says.

Kodiak is already taking a step in that direction; after years of pleas from locals, the city has authorized the purchase of a public crane at the local harbor, with a bid awarded in December and operations expected to start this summer.

Pro-fishing bumper stickers in Kodiak, Alaska. (Yereth Rosen)

Some forces hindering youth participation in fisheries might be too difficult to counter with economic incentives, however.

Alaska’s population, though it remains almost youngest of all U.S. states, is aging. Median age statewide was 33.8 in 2010. By 2016 that had crept up to 34.7 and is expected to be 36.9 in 2030, according to state demographic studies.

Some of that rise has been driven by Alaskans in their late teens and early 20s leaving the state for college and careers in the Lower 48. There are some inescapable demographic facts: The aging Baby Boom generation, veterans of the oil booms of the 1970s and 1980s, are overrepresented in Alaska’s population, as are their children, the “Echo Boomers,” while the younger generation is much smaller in number, said Eddie Hunsinger, Alaska’s state demographer.

One effect of Alaska’s aging population is the booming healthcare sector, a far more robust job creator in Alaska than almost any other industry, including fishing.

Alaska’s warming climate and related problems also make for mischief and volatility in the fishing industry – and serious economic risks for new entrants.

In the Gulf of Alaska, cod stocks have crashed, forcing an 80 percent cut in the allowable catch this year, a devastating blow to several coastal cities and to Kodiak in particular because it is a cod hub.

The crash is blamed on persistent warmth that penetrated to deep layers of the marine system; scientists believe the warm water conditions wiped out much of the cod’s food. Facing deep cuts in expected fish-tax receipts and other revenues, local government officials in Kodiak and other Gulf of Alaska towns are seeking federal disaster relief.

The cod crash, expected to last for a few years at least, also means a big loss of opportunity for locals who might take on temporary jobs as deckhands to build their fishing experience.

Julie Bonney, executive director of the fishing organization Alaska Groundfish Data Bank, said she worried that the scarcity of cod-fishing jobs would catch some locals by surprise.

“I figured people would just walk down the dock and expect the same-old-same-old and get their jobs back,” she said over a hot drink at Harborside Coffee.

Among those affected is Horwath. Normally, he is jigging for cod this time of the year but as of the start of March he had not caught a single cod.

Instead, he is focusing on rockfish, and on a new business model that he believes might appeal to tech- and marketing-savvy fishing entrepreneurs.

His rockfish catches are sent directly to customers who place orders with him, he said. He is working with a Sitka-based fishing network to focus on higher quality, not quantity, selling to niche markets focused on sustainable foods. “We’re trying to create more value for what’s coming out of the ocean,” he said.

Horwath believes that a sustainable sea-to-doorstep approach might be right for young fishers, and it could help ensure that a locally controlled industry survives to serve an important function in society. “I really think in the long term, people are going to want to eat fish,” he said.

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