Alaska’s limited-entry commercial fisheries system may be pulling access to fisheries away from the coastal communities where they take place.
A series of research projects in the past decade has increasingly shown that limited-entry systems like Alaska’s commercial fishing permitting system or the federal-state individual fishing quota system are systematically pulling permits away from the coastal communities that traditionally depend on those industries. The most recent installment in that line of projects focuses specifically on Bristol Bay — today, the state’s most successful salmon fishery.
The report, commissioned for The Nature Conservancy, found that in the 46 years since Alaska’s limited-entry system went into place, residents in Bristol Bay’s rural communities now own 50% fewer permits. The decline is similar among younger permit holders, contributing to the overall trend: commercial fishing permit holders in the state are increasingly older and from regions other than where they fish.
Dr. Rachel Donkersloot, the lead researcher on the study, has been conducting research on the effects of limited-entry on rural communities since at least 2016, as well as on the increasing average age of commercial fishermen, known as “the graying of the fleet.” While limited-entry has served fisheries conservation well in the past five decades, she said she was focusing on the human impact of the system in this report.
“It’s very clear we need to do better,” she said. “How can we improve, and how can we change it?”
When limited-entry was established, the designers primarily focused on implementing a program that would keep more fishing power in the hands of Alaskans while creating a transferable permit system. Permits are freely transferable, though, which creates market value. Depending on the success of a particular fishery, permits can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. On average, a Bristol Bay driftnetting permit cost more than $180,000 in 2021, according to the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission.
That price creates a huge barrier for residents of rural communities, where cash income is limited. Gradually, those permits have made their way out of rural communities and increasingly into the hands of urban Alaskans and nonresidents. Limited-entry was passed in 1975; by 1983, 288 permits had already left the hands of Alaska Natives in Bristol Bay, a 21% decline, the report found.
“This rural-to-urban outflow of fishing rights robs rural Alaska of its economic base, erodes rural economic opportunity, degrades rural infrastructure, and negatively impacts coastal community health, fishing heritage, and food security,” the report notes.
The effect is not unique to Bristol Bay. In Southeast, for example, the villages of Angoon, Kake, Metlakatla and Hydaburg lost about 60% of their salmon fishing permits. Some of the smallest communities in Bristol Bay, including Pedro Bay, Egegik, and Pilot Point lost more than 75% of their permit holdings, according to the report.
Meanwhile, the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery has been a blockbuster success, breaking its all-time record for returning sockeye this summer.
“The impacts of limited entry are devastating, but it’s almost eclipsed by the success of this phenomenal fishery,” Donkersloot said.
The reasons the permits are bleeding out of the Bay are complicated. Norm Van Vactor, president and CEO of the Dillinghman-based Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., said it’s a combination of different factors, including migration out of the watershed, attrition and some fishermen selling their permits rather than bequeathing them to their children.
For about a dozen years, the BBEDC has run a loan program to help aspiring fishermen purchase permits in the region. But even that has only slowed the bleed, not stopped it, Van Vactor said.
“At the end of the day, it almost cut the cost in half for a program participant to participate in it,” he said.
“We’ve cut the loss numbers,” he said, but it’s not enough.
The loss radiates economically. Not only do local permit holders make more money and hand down their expertise, they also train up local deckhands and younger commercial fishermen in the region. With them gone, Bristol Bay locals have a harder time getting onto vessels as deckhands.
A generation of role models has disappeared, he said. What’s more, the locals notice the change, and the attitude tends to become negative. Outsiders bring a different approach to fishing than the locals and Native communities that have traditionally fished the Bay, he said.
“It doesn’t really matter if you’re from Soldotna or San Francisco — you’re still an outsider,” he said.
Fixes to the problem have been slow to come. Van Vactor said he worked with the Legislature in 2017 and 2018 on a bill to establish Regional Fisheries Trusts, which would have allowed a regional entity to hold permits that coastal communities could use, essentially tying a certain percentage of the salmon fishing permits in a region to that geographic area. After a series of amendments and versions, the bill finally languished in the House Fisheries Committee, which Van Vactor said is “disappointing.”
Donkersloot also said the Legislature has a role to play in fixing this problem, trying to shift the permit system away from an open-market system where the cash-poor communities that depend on the fisheries cannot reasonably compete with more affluent permit holders from urban areas of Alaska or the Lower 48. In the report, the authors also highlight the potential for fisheries trusts as well as other suggested programs, like apprenticeship permits, small-scale access provisions and locally designated permits.
“We’ve seen the impact of limited-entry on our communities, in villages,” Donkersloot said. “I think the goal here was to restart that conversation.”