In 1980, the city of Dillingham boasted more than 150 fishing permit holders in the community. Today, that number has dropped to less than 80, and while the number of fishermen in rural Southwest Alaska has declined, the average age of those who continue to fish has risen by almost 10 years.
A collaborative research project conducted by the University of Alaska Fairbanks hopes to understand this trend, which has been dubbed "the graying of the fleet." The project, called "Alaska's Next Generation of Fishermen," hopes to find practical solutions that can rejuvenate an aging fishing industry.
"This is about how to sustain local fisheries over the long term," said Rachel Donkersloot, a program director at the Alaska Marine Conservation Council who grew up in Naknek.
The disappearance of rural permit holders and young permit holders is driven by two things, Donkersloot says. Since limited entry in permitting began, a significant number of permits have been transferred to people outside the state. Furthermore, many people have moved away from rural areas of the state and have taken their fishery permits with them.
The research project looks at four Bristol Bay communities, including Dillingham, Togiak, and Kokhanok. The villages making up the Bristol Bay Borough -- Naknek, South Naknek and King Salmon -- are being examined as a single community.
Most of the current data that attempts to understand the exodus of young fishermen from rural Alaska has focused on economic barriers. This new study, says Donkersloot, will expand that analysis. It will focus on attitudes toward fishing and look at whether there are social, cultural or geographic barriers.
At the recent Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference, some rural leaders mentioned that the issue may be the fault of young people.
Preliminary evidence seems to disagree with this view. In early study results, youth have expressed a high interest in pursuing fishing careers but don't see much chance for entering the industry, or for advancing once they get in.
"The young people that we've interviewed actually seem very interested in their community," said Courtney Carothers, an environmental anthropologist who is part of the group conducting the project.
The loss of rural Alaska permit holders is a big deal, says Donkersloot. While researchers haven't fully examined the data on all the potential factors contributing to the decline, the issue is no less real. Since 1975, the Bristol Bay region has lost 175 local permit holders, while nonresident permits have increased by 260 people.
"Young people are entering the fishery. They're just not coming from rural Alaska," Donkersloot said.
A number of studies have linked the success of commercial fisheries to subsistence practices, and Donkersloot says that if Alaska continues to lose local commercial fisheries, it can affect the subsistence fisheries.
"We're looking at the long-term sustainability of rural Alaskan cultural identity," said Donkersloot.
Donkersloot and Carothers have examined other initiatives from places as far-flung as Iceland and Norway, and even looked to the U.S. agriculture sector for ways to address the situation.
Maine offers both a student licensing program and an apprenticeship program to attract new entrants to its lobster fishery. Prince Edward Island's Future Fisher program also provides mentoring and financial support to new workers.
Youth in Norway are allowed to sell up to 1,320 pounds of fish without holding a specific permit. The catch is taken from the recreational quota for accountability.
In the U.S. agricultural industry of the Lower 48, where farmers age 65 and older outnumber farmers younger than 35 by nearly six to one, 400 million acres of farmland will change ownership in the next 20 years.
In an effort to buck this trend, the online platform Farmhack aims to share innovative ideas that support sustainable agriculture. Other interest groups have used both traditional and web-based media outlets to promote and support new farmers, and the Agrarian Trust was set up to hold and transfer land in order to ensure long-lasting stewardship for the industry.
Alaska's aging fishery fleet shares some of the same struggles as the agricultural sector, and both Carothers and Donkersloot say these examples can be adapted to address Alaska fishery needs.
"With the outmigration of fishing resources goes the outmigration of fishing wealth," Donkersloot said.
The Walker administration has also prioritized the need to improve fisheries access for rural Alaskans. The Fisheries Transition team released a report that aims to increase Alaska ownership of commercial fishing licenses, permits and quotas by 10 percent over the next five years. The report suggests actions to encourage commercial fishing as a viable option for young Alaskans and suggests the importance of promoting small-scale processing, marketing and the consumption of local seafood.
The report calls for further community organization and goes so far as to suggest that legislation could be passed to "retain/recapture commercial fishing licenses/permits for the use and benefit of community residents."
An aging fleet does not yet mean a dying fleet, and a number of programs have targeted young, rural Alaskans to encourage the sustainability of the fishing industry and to promote ownership-level fishing for residents under the age of 40.
The Alaska Young Fisherman's Summit, funded by SEAGRANT, targets fisheries workers who have been fishing for less than five years. According to Sunny Rice, an organizer for the summit, the biannual meeting "helps young people understand the complexities of the regulatory system."
About 60 people attended the last summit, which focused on the landward side of running a fishing business. The conference brought in speakers to paint a broad market picture, to analyze the science end of fisheries, and to help with networking.
Almost a third of the attendees were from Southwest Alaska.
"The biggest part of the summit is just to get people together," Rice said.
Other programs in the state aim to address the decline in permit holders. Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. helps fund a permit loan program that aims to keep limited entry permits from leaving the region.
In 2012, the Bering Sea crab fishery adopted a right-of-first-offer measure as a way to boost the quota shares available to qualified crew members.
In southeast, Ketchikan High School even offers a maritime course as part of its technical education curriculum. Students use the school's 45-foot boat to practice navigation and marine safety.
Many young people are entering fisheries. In Togiak, for example, a new fish processing plant has been a way to keep fishing interest local.
For those who do take up fishing, local support has been essential.
"Some people are certainly accessing family and friend sources of capital. … They're not actually having to go through the bank system, which can be prohibitive," said Carothers.
The project team hopes to complete its surveys this spring and will spend the summer compiling data.
This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.