Young Fishermen’s Development Act passes U.S. Senate

A fishing vessel enters Cordova Harbor. (May 12, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

Legislation aimed reducing economic and skill set barriers for the next generation of commercial fishermen needed to fill the shoes of aging harvesters has passed the U.S. Senate and now is under consideration in the House.

The Young Fishermen’s Development Act will provide a competitive grants program for collaborative state, tribal, local or regionally based networks or partnerships, plus mentorship/ apprenticeship programs to connect retiring fishermen and vessel owners with new and beginning fishermen.

Also included will be financial support for local and regional training and education in sustainable and accountable fishing practices, marine stewardship and business practices, plus technical initiatives that address needs of inexperienced harvesters.

The program is modeled after the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s successful Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. It will create the first federal program dedicated to training, educating and assisting those new to commercial fishing.

The program will be run through Sea Grant, localized for each region, said Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association (ALFA) in Sitka, herself a veteran harvester.

“Right now, it is challenging for young fishermen to get into business,” Behnken said. “This legislation will provide education and training. It is something our group helped draft. We are really excited to try to get the act passed. Our (congressional) delegation has been a positive part of moving it ahead.”

ALFA is a founding member of the Fishing Communities Coalition, an association of community-based, small boat commercial fishing groups representing over 1,000 independent fishermen and business owners from Maine to the gulf coast of Alaska with a commitment to sustainable management of the nation’s fishery resources.

The legislation passed without a funding package, which will have to be added later by a congressional appropriations committee. Funding cannot be appropriated for a program that does not yet exist in law, said Hannah Ray, press secretary for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

Commercial fisheries in the United States generate over $200 billion in sales and support some 1.7 million jobs annually. Supporters of the legislation, including Senators Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski, both R-Alaska, and Edward Markey, D-Mass, noted that in recent years, those trying to enter the commercial fishing industry have faced higher barriers to entry, resulting in several shifts in the demographics of commercial permit holders.

In several regions, they said, commercial fisheries have seen an increase by 10 years or more in the average participant’s age over previous generations of fishermen, and rural communities have lost 30 percent of local permit holders. Some studies have suggested that this graying of the fleet has led to an increase in the financial costs and risks needing to get established as a commercial harvester.