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Graying of the fleet has Alaska looking for young hands on deck

  • Author: Ann Robertson
    | Opinion
  • Updated: January 13
  • Published January 13

Alaska's fisheries provide lucrative opportunities for those who choose to make their living on the water. For aspiring entrants to the fishing industry, however, these opportunities have become more difficult to seize, costing Alaska's economy and erecting hurdles for those laboring to build their own local fishing businesses.

According to "Turning the Tide," a new report published by the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Alaska's resident fishing fleet is dwindling while simultaneously growing older. Across the resident fleet, the average age of permit holders has increased from 40 to 50 since 1980 as fewer young people don rain gear and hit the deck. In the Kodiak archipelago, the number of under-40 permit holders has declined 84 percent over four decades.

While the resident fleet grows gray hair, fishing permits are marching south to the Lower 48 states. Permit holdings in Alaska's rural communities have declined by 30 percent. In Hydaburg, power troll permit holdings have decreased from a historic high of 20 permits, in 1976, to 4 permits today. King Cove fishermen held 41 drift gillnet permits in the late 1970s; today, they hold 14. In Bristol Bay, nonresidents hold more than half of all drift gillnet permits. Communities like Dillingham and Naknek have seen local permit holdings slump while entry costs to fishing rise, especially for permits and capable vessels, which can cost upwards of $150,000 — each.

Significant non-resident permit holdings erode economic value for Alaska as wages earned from harvesting Alaska fish steadily flow down south. Venerable fisheries journalist Laine Welch reported  that in 2015, Alaska fishermen took home $602 million in earnings, while Washington's skippers and crew earned $902 million harvesting Alaska's fish. For a state mired in a multi-year economic slump, Alaska needs to keep its fishing income at home, where it can sustain local schools, small businesses, mechanics, and fishing supply stores — the main streets of our coastal communities. To tackle this problem, Alaskans must devise innovative ways to strengthen and develop our resident fishing fleet.

A fishing boat in  Nushagak Bay on July 12, 2016. (Molly Dischner / The Bristol Bay Times)

Financial tools for local entrants to Alaska's commercial fisheries already exist. The Commercial Fishing Revolving Loan Fund has been immensely successful turning resident deckhands into skippers, helping fishermen obtain permits or boats, and financing upgrades to vessels. But for aspiring skippers who don't have the credit, collateral, or cosigner to secure a permit loan, regional fisheries trusts can fill a critical gap.

Regional fisheries trusts will provide temporary permit access to aspiring skippers starting their own fishing business. Building on the regional management framework used by the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission and the Department of Fish and Game, individual regions will be able to establish a fisheries trust if two-thirds of the communities in that region opt in. Once established, regional fisheries trusts will be overseen by a board of directors nominated by the region's municipalities, and will be allowed to hold no more than 2.5 percent of limited entry permits in any fishery. Trust boards will be empowered to use preference criteria, like demonstrated crewmember experience, for selecting applicants and awarding temporary transfers of permits. Local control and regional autonomy will be key to the success of fisheries trusts, ensuring that trusts are connected to the needs of their fishing communities.

Gradual paths to permit ownership already exist in the emergency medical transfer (EMT) market, where young fishermen with access to a vessel lease permits from ill or injured fisherman for a single season. But EMTs are subject to year-to-year unpredictability and come at high cost. By offering temporary access to a limited entry permit for a stable multi-year term, regional fisheries trusts will provide new captains with a secure and predictable path to get their start, improving local access to Alaska's commercial fisheries.

There is no scarcity of hardworking young deckhands and skippers in Alaska. This was abundantly clear at the Alaska Young Fishermen's Summit in Anchorage last month, where young fishermen lobbed questions at industry veterans on topics like financing, vessel maintenance, and the Gordian knot that is fisheries management. As the financial barriers facing new entrants to Alaska's commercial fisheries shift, so should the tools available for new entrants to begin building their fishing operations from the deck up. Regional fisheries trusts are a stepping stone to permit ownership for fishermen getting their start in a tough and unforgiving industry, and ultimately promise to boost the number of permit holders — and fishing wages — in Alaska's fishing communities.

Ann Robertson is a Juneau deckhand participating in a Young Fishing Fellowship through the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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