New generation of harvesters faces big challenges

80 percent drop in Pacific cod allocation poses economic challenges for Gulf of Alaska communities

Ken Jones, captain of the F/V Serenity, and a board member of Cordova District Fishermen United, accepted an award at the Alaska Young Fishermen’s Summit in Anchorage on Dec. 8 on behalf of CDFU in recognition of CDFU’s 10 years of member supported sponsorship of the next generation of the next generation of Alaska fisheries leaders. CDFU sponsored participation at the three-day event for young Cordova harvesters. Photo by Margaret Bauman/The Cordova Times
Ken Jones, captain of the F/V Serenity, and former board member of Cordova District Fishermen United, accepted an award at the Alaska Young Fishermen’s Summit in Anchorage on Dec. 8 on behalf of CDFU in recognition of CDFU’s 10 years of member supported sponsorship of the next generation of the next generation of Alaska fisheries leaders. CDFU sponsored participation at the three-day event for young Cordova harvesters. Photo by Margaret Bauman/The Cordova Times

Words of encouragement from Gov. Bill Walker, along with bare economic facts of life the commercial fisheries in Alaska greeted several dozen young commercial seafood harvesters gathered for the 2017 Alaska Young Fishermen’s Summit in Anchorage.

“Fisheries are a critical part of the Alaska economy,” Walker told the young harvesters gathered at the Dena’ina Center in Anchorage Dec. 6-8. “There is no bigger opportunity than in fisheries.”

The governor praised the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and ADF&G Commissioner Sam Cotten for their efforts in overseeing “the best managed fishery in the world,” noting that this year Bristol Bay’s salmon harvest “was off the charts as far as returns.”

Walker, who crewed on a seiner in Prince William Sound as a young man, said he loved the lifestyle, that he admired those who have stayed in this industry and those who are just getting started. The challenges now, are not just in the water, but on the marketing side, he said.

Waker acknowledged the need for more state funding in fisheries, saying “I wish we could do more but we’re in a tough place financially.”  He noted that the need for more processing workers was so great that the state bussed 50 prisoners incarcerated on the Kenai Peninsula down to processing facilities to work, and said they were able to pay off restitution due. “They weren’t putting anyone out of a job because they didn’t have enough people,” he said.

Among those in attendance for Alaska Sea Grant’s biggest such summit to date were seven young harvesters from Cordova, sponsored by Cordova District Fishermen United.  The group included Aaron Hansen, Kade Butler, Brandon Ryan, Ryan Day, Jordan Day, Jeremy Donahue and Matt Richardson.

Alaska Sea Grant, which organizes the Alaska Young Fishermen’s Summit on a biennial basis, acknowledged that and more in its new report on the aging of the average worker engaged in commercial fisheries, “Turning The Tide,” a 42-page report that can be downloaded online at http://fishermen.alaska.edu

The report notes that the average fisherman today is over 50 years old, a decade older than the average fisherman of a generation ago.

“The graying of the fleet and loss of local access to commercial fisheries in several important fishery regions in the state threatens the healthy succession of fishing as an economic and cultural mainstay in Alaska’s communities, and creates a public policy concern for Alaska,” the report said.

The report, financed through funds from Alaska Sea Grant and the North Pacific Research Board,

concludes that privatizing fisheries access through requirements to purchase permits and quota created financial and other barriers for the next generation of harvesters, and has had a big impact on small rural fishing communities.

Privatization of these fisheries has resulted in the need for increased financial capital and other risks, including a lack of stable markets, the report concludes. Limited entry and individual quota programs have led to a contraction of fishing fleets in communities where fishing rights have been sold or migrated away, affecting access to those fisheries for future generations.

The report notes that residents of fishing communities in Bristol Bay and the Kodiak Archipelago identified many social barriers to accessing fisheries. They included a lack of exposure to commercial fishing, lack of experience, knowledge and family connections to fishing, discouragement from pursuing fishing as a career, and substance abuse and related problems in communities.

University of Alaska seafood marketing expert Quentin Fong, on the faculty at the Kodiak campus, spoke about how Alaska’s wild seafood competes in global markets, the importance of sustainable fisheries and the need for quality seafood.

“Quality is very important in keeping your prices up,” he said. “When you have problems of sickness (of the fish) and poorer quality product, then the customer buys elsewhere.”

In supermarkets the profit margin is very, very low, so supermarkets are very conservative in how they buy seafood. They don’t want to buy any product that is not going to sell,” he said.

More than 80 harvesters, from nearly every gear type and mostly ages 26 to 30 years old, came to the summit to learn more about the business side of fishing, on topics ranging from what drives market value and direct marketing to navigating through meetings of the Alaska Board of Fisheries and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

Some of the young harvesters took a field trip over to the federal fish council’s meeting, where one major concern is the dramatic drop in the biomass and abundance of Pacific cod in the Gulf of Alaska.

The drop, which has resulted in an 80 percent cut in the 2018 Gulf of Alaska allowable catch of P-cod for 2018, was triggered by anomalous warm conditions in the Gulf, that began in 2014 and lasted at least through 2016.

The federal fisheries council last week set the Gulf’s cod quota at 13,096 metric tons, down from 64,442 metric tons in 2017.  The forecast for 2019 is a TAC of 12,368 metric tons.

The council also cut Gulf Pollock TAC for 2018 to 166,228 metric tons, down from 184,243 metric tons in 2017, with a forecast of 112,677 metric tons in 2019.

The overall TAC for all Gulf of Alaska groundfish harvests in 2018 was set at 427,512 metric tons, down from 535,863 metric tons a year earlier.

The reduced total allowable catch poses big economic concerns for coastal fishing communities in the Gulf of Alaska, where cod fisheries could be reduced from weeks of fishing to days, said Julie Bonney of the Alaska Groundfish Data Bank.

Bonney urged the council to get the news out to everyone engaged in the cod fishery, so they are not surprised when the season opens in January. “It doesn’t make sense to gear up, spend all that money, and then fish for a few days, so I think the number of folks who will fish will be less,” she said. “I’m concerned that people don’t know what the production means in terms of the fishing plan.”

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Margaret Bauman is a veteran Alaska journalist focused on covering fisheries and environmental issues. Bauman has been writing for The Cordova Times since 2010. You can reach her at mbauman@thecordovatimes.com.