Alaska is one of the most productive commercial fishing economies on the planet. More than five billion pounds of seafood were pulled from the waters surrounding Alaska in 2012. This world-class catch generated $1.7 billion in Alaska ex-vessel value and earned Alaska the title of top U.S. seafood producer. We provide more than 55 percent of U.S. domestic seafood production. That’s nearly four times more seafood than the next largest seafood producing state.
Clearly, there is much to celebrate. But first place doesn’t make us impervious to crisis. Major declines in chinook returns, shrinking halibut biomass, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, regime shifts, skyrocketing fuel prices, ocean acidification; we have weathered our share of disasters and will continue to combat big challenges.
But not all crises come in like a lion. Some arrive quietly, like the steady aging of our fleet.
In 2013, the average age of Alaska fishery permit holders was 49.7 years, up ten years since 1980. Our rural fishing communities, and our state at large, has yet to feel the full impacts associated with the “graying of the fleet” but the absence of young Alaskan fishermen filling the ranks is an important harbinger of the crisis to come. Between 1980 and 2013, the number of Alaska residents under the age of 40 holding fishing permits has fallen from 38.5 percent to 17.3 percent of the total number of permits.
Some communities have been particularly hard hit. In southeast, Angoon has suffered a 90 percent loss of permit holders under the age of 40 between 1990 and 2013 — a decline from 20 to only 1 permit holder remaining. Pelican has followed suit, with the number of young fishermen falling from 21 to 2 in that time frame.
On the other side of the state in the Bristol Bay region, the fishing community of Egegik finds itself without a single permit holder under the age of 40. In 1990, Egegik was home to 20. Although this problem poses a particular threat to the sustainability of our rural fishing communities, it is not necessarily a rural phenomenon.
Larger communities and regional hubs have not fared better. The number of young fishermen in Cordova has declined from 191 to 77, a near 60 percent loss from 1990 to 2013. Juneau is also home to more than 70 young fishermen, which appears promising until you compare it to the 130 living there in 1990. Bethel has also seen a more than 60 percent decline (from 116 to 45). Even Anchorage, our largest “fishing community” if you will, has seen a near 50 percent drop in young permit holders in the last 23 years, from 267 to 137.
Wasilla is one of the few communities in-state that is seeing the under 40 age category of the industry grow. Since 1990, Wasilla has seen the ranks of young fishermen swell slightly from 46 to 63. Chugiak and Eagle River are also holding strong with stable numbers of 10 and 21 permit holders respectively.
The lack of young Alaskans entering into commercial fisheries is compounded by another troubling trend — the rise in non-resident permit ownership in some fisheries. Together these concerning trends threaten the long-term viability of our coastal communities and state.
As we work to better understand the problem, we must also work toward effective solutions. Our aging fleet means that many of the rights to Alaska fisheries will change hands in the next decade. What will this transfer mean for the well-being of coastal Alaska and those who call it home?
The steady decline of local and young fishermen participating in Alaska fisheries is a mounting crisis, but it is not an inevitable one. The good news is that the Walker-Mallot Administration gets this and is laying the groundwork to address this problem.
Now is the time for coastal Alaskans, rural leaders, young fishermen, the legislature and the Governor’s Office to work collectively to broaden and bolster the mechanisms needed to better facilitate entry and support the intergenerational transfer of fishing rights.
This is how we will sustain Alaska coastal communities and livelihoods. This is how we will ensure that the billions of pounds and dollars that make Alaska fisheries the envy of everywhere continue to benefit Alaskans. That’s why we fought for statehood; that’s what our constitution demands. We need all boots on deck for this one.
Rachel Donkersloot is the Working Waterfronts Program Director at the Alaska Marine Conservation Council. She was raised in the fishing community of Naknek and is currently involved in a collaborative research project which focuses on the “graying of the fleet” in Bristol Bay and Kodiak Island fishing communities. Her work at AMCC concentrates on policy solutions which enhance community-based access and supporting leadership amongst young fishermen.