We Alaskans

Alaska's facing the 'graying of the fleet,' but some determined young fishermen are bucking the trend

Red salmon are beginning to hit Bristol Bay and across the state, thousands of fishermen are mending nets, hiring crew and preparing to harvest the bounty from Alaska waters and the seas beyond. Today, the average age of a commercial fishery permit holder in Alaska is 50 — up from 40 in 1980. At that time, Alaskans under the age of 40 held nearly 40 percent of the fishing permits. As of a couple of years ago, young Alaska fishermen owned less than 20 percent.

This "graying of the fleet" means that fewer young Alaskans are becoming fishermen. For young people already fishing, advancing in the industry can be hard, especially with the costs of permits, quota and vessels rising.

The numbers are particularly startling in Alaska's coastal villages. Over the past four decades in rural communities around Kodiak, for example, there's been an 84 percent drop in the number of salmon seine permits owned by local fishermen under the age of 40.

It takes about half a million dollars to get set up as a full-time fisherman — a heftier price tag than for a plush house. Today, a seine permit in the Kodiak region costs about $50,000. A salmon drift permit in Bristol Bay runs about $150,000. Halibut quota is being sold for upwards of $50 per pound, an increase from about $15 per pound in 2010.  At today's rate, a young person trying to buy into the halibut fishery either needs a million dollars in cash or be willing to pour all income into a loan payment.

But these aren't the only challenges faced by young Alaskans aiming to enter the state's $6.4 billion industry, the largest private employer in the 49th state.

"Often the issues are portrayed as only economic," Courtney Carothers said. She's the head of a four-year, $400,000 University of Alaska Fairbanks study investigating Alaska's aging fishing industry and barriers facing young people in the fishing-dependent Kodiak and Bristol Bay regions. Her team has interviewed more than 150 people and surveyed some 800 students, revealing steep social, cultural and logistical hurdles. These include lack of exposure to fishing, a dearth of local mentors, and social problems, including drug and alcohol addiction.

Young people already in the industry face a learning curve while paying such expenses as loans, moorage and boat maintenance. And, like all fishermen, they're at the whim of the global marketplace, which means their income may vary sharply year to year. This can be particularly hard for young people working to establish their businesses while supporting families.

Many factors contribute to the graying of the fleet, but it's clear to Carothers and others that how fisheries are managed shapes who fishes. Limited entry and individual fishing quota (IFQ) systems restrict access to fisheries by transforming what was a right to fish into a commodity that's bought and sold — creating a "system of haves and have-nots," Carothers said. In the coastal communities she's studying, young people realize early on that in order to be a commercial fisherman, they need a lot of money.

Other parts of the world offer models for how Alaska might support young people who want to fish. Maine operates a lobster fishery apprenticeship program, for instance, creating a path for young people to enter the fishery without a huge financial burden. Some European countries provide special access for young people, too.

What's at stake if young Alaskans don't join the fleet? According to Carothers, nothing less than the sustainability of our fishing economies, cultures and communities.

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Here's a brief look at some young Alaskans getting started in the industry that helped shape Alaska's history and identity.

Luke Smith

Hometown: White Mountain

Age: 31

Background: Second-generation commercial fisherman

Fisheries: Norton Sound winter king crab fishery; Norton Sound summer king crab fishery; Bering Sea crab fishery

Vessels Owned: Northern Fury, a 32-foot Bristol Bay stern picker configured for crab

Quote: "If there's a way to make money fishing, you're going to see me out there."

In April, you'll find Luke Smith on the frozen expanse of Norton Sound, fishing for red king crab through holes in the ice. The 31-year-old father fishes year-round, from early spring crab fishing by snowmachine to running his own boat in the Norton Sound summer crab fishery and working as a deckhand come winter on a Bering Sea crabber.

Smith grew up in Golovin, an Inupiat Eskimo village of fewer than 200 people 70 miles east of Nome, not far from where he lives now in White Mountain. As a kid, Smith helped with his father's commercial setnet operation. As Smith grew and saw some of his siblings go through hard times, he decided, "I'm not going that way." Smith was the only child in his family to finish high school, and he's the only commercial fisherman, too.

Smith's business philosophy goes like this: "Put some time into it and learn it and throw all of the money you can at it so you can run your own show." He adds, "You can do so much for yourself when you're starting a business." Smith has seized opportunities, such as moving quickly when he heard about a boat going on the market. Smith secured a vessel loan from the Norton Sound Economic Development Corp. to make the purchase.

In the years to come, Smith hopes to become a skipper on a Dutch Harbor crabber. And he looks forward to fishing with his kids during the summer. Smith and his wife Carol have five children, ages 4 to 16.

Amy Schaub

Hometown: Homer, her boat

Age: 37

Background: First-generation commercial fisherman

Fisheries: Southeast salmon seine fishery

Vessels Owned: Norsel, a 58-foot seiner

Quote: "I don't have anything handed down to me."

Although this season will only be Amy Schaub's second as captain, her eight-year commercial fishing resume is extensive. Off the coasts of Alaska, Washington and California, she has longlined for halibut, black cod and gray cod; jigged for cod and rockfish; fished for prawn; seined for salmon and squid; and fished for Dungeness crab. Last year, Schaub bought the Norsel, a 1950 wooden seiner she had crewed on for five years.

Schaub is from rural Wisconsin, a place where "you choose a job with a good 401(k) and you stay there." That's exactly what she hasn't done. Instead, Schaub has sought a variety of experiences to build her skills as a mariner and fisherman. She has a degree in wooden boat building from the Northwest School of Wooden Boat Building, which helps her maintain the Norsel. She has an able seaman credential and a 100-ton master's license. She has worked on a research vessel in Antarctica and has sailed tall ships on the Great Lakes. And, realizing she needed to learn more about net construction and repair, Schaub spent this past winter working for a Homer net-building company.

"You have to work a lot harder," Schaub said of first-generation fishermen. "I don't have anything handed down to me."

Schaub believes she must diversify her operation, spending more money up front. And that's the rub for Schaub.

"Community is a huge part of fishing for me," Schaub reflected. Last summer was the first season she communicated via the boat's VHF radio as captain, and she's built a group of friends and fellow fishermen — her radio partners — she plans to fish near for the next 30 years.

Despite working up to the level of captain and vessel owner, Schaub is still figuring things out. "We're all struggling," Schaub said of the young skippers. Financing, dealing with salmon-price fluctuations, the uncertainty environmental changes bring — "I'm dealing with it as I go," she said.

Jake Everich

Hometown: Kodiak

Age: 26

Background: Second-generation commercial fisherman

Fisheries:  Gulf of Alaska trawl fishery, Kodiak salmon tender

Vessels Owned: None. Everich works as captain on the Alaskan, a 73-foot trawler

Quote: "I'm ready to make a bigger commitment in the industry, but how I'm going to do that, I don't know."

When Jake Everich was a high school senior in Rhode Island, he missed so many days of school because of his commercial fishing job that in order to graduate he had to convince his adviser that working on a trawler was giving him an education. Everich's father had been a trawler and had continued to fish commercially in small boat fisheries as Everich grew.

"Trawling's in my blood," he said.

Six years ago, Everich came to Alaska and, while walking the docks in Kodiak, met the owner of the Alaskan. He has completed four years as crew and two years as captain of the vessel.

The trawl industry is particularly hard for young people to break into, Everich said. It's one of the more difficult fisheries, with complicated and expensive equipment and a higher level of risk.

"The margin of error is extremely slim," he said.

Despite the challenges, Everich describes commercial fishing as "pretty much one of the last industries that produces something. Essentially you're printing dollars."

And he wants to invest more.

"I'd love to be able to step into an ownership role," Everich said. But regulatory uncertainty, he explained, keeps him from doing so. Managers of the trawl fishery are considering new ways to reduce bycatch and make the fishery — one of the last in Alaska to operate derby-style — safer.

"I'm ready to make a bigger commitment in the industry, but how I'm going to do that, I don't know," he said.

Everich is quickly becoming a young leader among trawl fishermen, testifying at fishery meetings and traveling to Denmark this fall to learn about new trawl equipment and technology.

Regulatory changes coupled with environmental change will shape the industry, Everich said. But "in the fishing industry," he said, "there's always uncertainty."

Ken Jones

Hometown: Cordova

Age: 24

Background: Third-generation commercial fisherman

Fisheries: Prince William Sound cod jig fishery, Sitka herring seine fishery, Prince William Sound salmon seine fishery, Prince William Sound black cod longline fishery, salmon tendering

Vessels Owned: Serenity, a 50-foot seiner; Second Wind, a 32-foot bow picker

Quote: "If somebody wants to make [fishing] their life, then they'll do it."

The family story goes like this: When Ken Jones' father was 9 or 10, he was sent out commercial fishing alone by his father. Jones' grandfather, a Cordova high school teacher from the Lower 48 turned commercial fisherman, knew that limited-entry salmon fishing was coming, and getting your net in the water was important in order to earn the right to fish. It worked. Jones' father was among the original 1973 salmon permit holders. That was before Jones graduated from high school; dad still fishes today.

By age 10, Jones was spending summers fishing with his dad. At 16, he had enough money from fishing and Permanent Fund dividends saved up to buy a 30-year-old fixer-upper seiner. Jones hasn't inherited permits, but "there's been a lot of knowledge passed down."

While some fishermen lament the lack of economic security, Jones said it's up to each fisherman. He's paying into a retirement account and is looking beyond commercial fishing to diversify his business. "You've got to be friends with a CPA. I talk to my accountant at least once a week," he said.

"There's definitely some issues facing this generation," said Jones, who sits on Cordova's harbor commission. Climate change and ocean acidification worry him. Genetically modified farmed salmon dubbed Frankenfish, price volatility and troubled relations with Russia (a good market for pink salmon roe) will continue to shape the industry, Jones said. And the state's budget crisis concerns him.

"We're losing management tools and programs," Jones said.

One bright side, Jones said, is that since some salmon prices are down, so are the costs of permits and boats, which can help young people get into the industry.

"Right now is a decent time to buy in," he said.

Elsa Sebastian

Hometown: Sitka

Age: 25

Background: Second-generation commercial fisherman

Fisheries: Southeast salmon troll fishery

Vessels Owned: Lena, a 38-foot sailboat configured for trolling

Quote: "You're working yourself to a nub. But you're also creating independence for yourself."

Elsa Sebastian grew up in Point Baker, a fishing community of a few dozen residents 50 miles southwest of Petersburg, where her parents had moved in search of a different kind of life than they could find Outside. Home-schooled, Sebastian and her brother spent four months of the year on the family's 1937 wooden troller. During high school, she and her brother bought a hand troller with PFD money their parents had socked away. For four seasons, Sebastian hand-trolled — fishing for king and silver salmon with two lines of hooks trailing off the back of the boat and pulling them in by hand.

"Read books. Do well in school. Go to a good college," was her parents' mantra. Sebastian got a full scholarship to a prestigious private college on the East Coast; she and her brother were the first in their family to attend college. But she always came home for the summer and fished. This past fall, she bought a power troller, the Lena — purchased from and financed by a family friend — that fishes with four lines and a motorized winch.

Sebastian dedicates much of her off-season to conservation and community issues. A board member of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, she's helping build a network of young fishermen around the state to share skills. Sebastian is also concerned with the permit drain from rural communities, and is worried the industry is losing diversity. She recalls the varied community of commercial fishermen she knew growing up — disparate people connected by fishing.

"It really takes business people to get into the industry these days," she said.

"It's really hard to visualize a life fishing," she said. There's no retirement plan, no economic security, she explained. Life is seasonal. When you fish, "You're working yourself to a nub," Sebastian said. "But you're also creating independence for yourself." Sebastian's new boat is her most important business asset, but she also describes it as "a really stable platform for sailing around the world" — which one day she'd like to do.

John Christensen

Hometown: Port Heiden

Age: 32

Background: Third-generation commercial fisherman

Fisheries: Bristol Bay salmon gillnet fishery

Vessels Owned: Queen Ann, 32-foot drifter

Quote: "You don't know if there is going to be enough fish or if it's going to be worth anything."

John Christensen can't remember how old he was when he fished with his father for the first time — maybe 10 or 11.

"I think I was just sick the whole time," he said. But by age 16, he was fishing all summer, gillnetting for salmon in Bristol Bay.

Christensen is from Port Heiden, an Alutiiq village of about 100 people on the Alaska Peninsula at the mouth of the salmon-rich Meshik River. He graduated from high school and served in the Navy three years before coming home. Both his father and grandfather were commercial fishermen. From his late father, Christensen inherited a fishing permit and the Queen Ann, a 32-foot drift boat he runs out of Ugashik and Port Heiden.

And like his father, Christensen is a leader in his community. As president of the Port Heiden Native Council, Christensen is helping establish a village fish processing plant that will hire local workers and process fish from Port Heiden's fleet of nearly a dozen fishermen. Currently, the closest market for their fish is 60 miles away. Once the processing facility is up and running, Port Heiden fishermen will be able to fish locally.

Christensen sees price volatility as one of the greatest challenges facing young fishermen.

"You don't know if there is going to be enough fish or if it's going to be worth anything," he said.

What he hopes to see in the future is a greater demand for high-quality wild salmon and stable prices.

"It's a great job," he said. "It just doesn't pay very well." But, he likes being his own boss and working only part of the year.

Christensen is married with two kids and one more on the way. This summer might be the first time his oldest child — an 8-year-old son —  fishes with him.

"He's really excited to go," Christensen said.

Darren Platt

Hometown: Kodiak

Age: 34

Background: First-generation commercial fisherman

Fisheries: Kodiak salmon seine fishery; Kodiak herring seine fishery

Vessels Owned: Agnes Sabine, a 42-foot seiner

Quote: "I love how much I think and learn every day on the water."

Darren Platt has a master's degree in mechanical engineering, but it's commercial fishing — not a job in his field — that excites and challenges him.

"Although engineering is an academic pursuit, I find fishing to be far more intellectually challenging. I love how much I think and learn every day on the water," he said.

Platt, 34, is from Minnesota. Fishing with his uncle off New Jersey beaches as a youngster hooked him.

"From that day on, I absolutely loved fishing," he said.

One summer during college in Oregon, he bought a plane ticket to Alaska. Walking the docks in Homer, he got his first fishing job on a Bristol Bay drift boat. That was nearly 12 years ago. But to him, fishing remains "novel and fresh," Platt said.

A Kodiak resident for six years, Platt strongly believes that privatization of fisheries — via individual fishing quotas or catch shares — is bad for fishermen and their communities.

"Ultimately it seems to cause great harm to fishermen," he said. Platt, who has spoken out on the issue, believes that catch share systems transfer the costs onto the next generation by granting one generation the rights to fish while the following generations have to pay for it.

Platt is also concerned about biological changes, such as the shrinking average size of some species.

"We're facing a lot of environmental uncertainty," Platt said. "We're seeing a drastically evolving marine ecosystem."

Miranda Weiss is a science and nature writer and the author of "Tide, Feather, Snow: A Life in Alaska."

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