Numerous studies over the past decade have highlighted Alaska's "graying of the fleet" (the average age of permit holders is 50), and the lack of opportunities for younger people to launch a career in commercial fishing.
State data show that between 1975 and 2014, more than 2,300 limited-entry permits (nearly 28 percent) migrated away from Alaska's rural fishing communities to nonresidents.
A new measure gaining steam in the Alaska Legislature aims to reverse that trend by creating fisheries trusts in which communities could buy permits and lease them to fishermen who otherwise could not afford them.
"It's good to recognize the problem, but it's even better to try and do something about it," said Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, sponsor of the legislation, House Bill 188.
Under the plan, regional trusts could buy or be gifted up to 2.5 percent of the permits in any given fishery, and lease them for up to six years to fishermen who want to make the transition from deckhand to permit owner. The fishermen must then buy their own permits if they choose to continue in a fishery. The trusts would apply to all limited-entry fisheries in Alaska.
At the outset, the trusts would be authorized in up to three Alaska regions that choose to opt in, and must be approved by a two-thirds vote in any municipality. Members of any trust's board would be recommended by cities and boroughs in each region and appointed by the governor. Unincorporated communities may also be included on the board.
"Just as people often rent before buying a house, fisheries trusts offer an opportunity to run a boat and gain experience before making the six-figure decision to finance a permit and become an independent small-business owner," Kreiss-Tomkins said.
Interested stakeholders, which include Alaska Native groups, state agencies and fishing organizations from Southeast to Nome, have spent more than 2 1/2 years developing the idea.
"We are continuing to craft and refine the model in terms of legality and policy," Kreiss-Tomkins said, adding that the level of interest is very region-specific.
"Some are very bullish about the opportunity, some are not. That's totally fine," he said. "We expect some will watch and see how it goes, and then make a decision once they have more information."
The measure is scheduled for hearings during the extended legislative session, although it is not expected to be put to a vote.
"We are taking it slow and steady," Kreiss-Tomkins said. "In the interim, we are hoping to grow the conversation with fishing communities, economic development advocates and other stakeholders. We will be ready to revisit it next year."
Fishing voices on global warming
Fishermen are on the frontline when it comes to the impacts of an off-kilter climate, and an ongoing listening project by The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is giving voice to what they are experiencing.
Called Tidal Change, the project began gathering comments last fall from a cross section of fishermen on how a changing climate affects their lives.
"Our main intention is to make sure that people have an opportunity to hear stories that are truly authentic and rooted in personal experience that perhaps aren't otherwise being heard," said Dustin Solberg, a Nature Conservancy writer based in Cordova.
Here's a sampler: "I've noticed a lot of environmental changes," said Melanie Brown of Juneau, a longtime Bristol Bay setnetter. "The rivers don't freeze anymore and the ice floes aren't there to protect the bluff above where our site is. It's starting to fill in my site so it goes dry more quickly and I have less fishing time. It's daunting."
"The last 35 years, I've noticed the ocean warming in places where the salmon have to navigate up coastal streams," said Bob Snell, who fishes the Washington and Oregon coasts. "It is difficult for them to get up to their spawning grounds."
Eugene Anderson, a lifelong fisherman from Chignik, said most fishermen agree that "something is not right."
"Over the past years since the waters have warmed up, the fish blush earlier. By the first week of August, you start getting fish in the river (that) are all red, and the salmon are smaller. Sometimes we have water temperatures as high as 60 degrees, and when the water is warmer the feed is not as prolific. The young people really have to think about what's going on. It's a very uncertain time. It's kind of scary."
Peter Andrew of Dillingham, a 45-year fishing veteran, added: "Scientists speak about water temperature being a key part of the survival of sockeye and other salmon species. I've seen the water temperature go up and it is very alarming. Bristol Bay is an absolute wonderful place and it's going to take some good stewardship to make sure this fishery stays as it has been for 10,000 years."
"People look at me like I'm a nut, but I tell them the salmon are confused. The patterns they have followed for years and years — now they don't seem to know which way to go or where or when to go. That's pretty scary business."
Kodiak's herring season, which began April 15, has produced 70 tons but is on hold awaiting another wave of fish. Unlike roe herring fisheries at such places as Sitka Sound and Togiak, which can wrap up after a few short openers, Kodiak's herring hauls can occur at up to 80 different places and continue into June. This year's harvest is limited to 1,645 tons.
Togiak in Bristol Bay is Alaska's biggest roe herring fishery and all signs point to it kicking off at the traditional time in early May. Budget cuts last year had processors pitching in for aerial surveys to spot the herring swarms, and precluded any stock sampling. Now a $61,000 boost from processors will help get herring monitoring back on track.
"We need to have information on the age and size of the fish that are harvested," said Tim Sands, area manager at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game office in Dillingham. "Without that we can't forecast the next year's return and we have to be much more conservative. That's reflected in this year's harvest level of 23,000 tons as we had no data to work on."
This year's projected Togiak harvest is down more than 10 percent from the past two seasons. Participation and price, however, are on an upswing and four buyers are expected.
"It looks like we're going to have 19 seine boats and 16 gillnetters. Last year we only had three gillnetters," Sands told the KDLG radio in Dillingham. "I'm hearing rumors of $100 to $150 a ton, so the price is back up and that's bringing them back into the fishery."
Statewide, Alaska will produce less than 40,000 tons of herring this year. Female fish are valued for their eggs, all of which go to Asia; males are typically ground up for meal or dumped.
Last year, the average price for roe herring to Alaska fishermen was just 11 cents a pound. In Norway, where herring are smoked, pickled and canned, fishermen fetch more than $1.40 a pound.
Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based commercial fishing columnist. Contact her at email@example.com.