By Yereth Rosen
Young Alaskans seeking to break into commercial fishing face a lot of the same barriers that confront young farmers in the Lower 48 states, but they have far fewer resources to help overcome those barriers, according to newly published research.
A study by Alaska experts with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration argues that the fishing industry and the communities that depend on fishing should have support similar to that offered to young farmers.
“The sheer scale, depth, and breadth of programming for beginning farmers makes the comparison to new fisheries entrant programs stark. Yet the lack of a new generation of fishermen poses similar risks to national food security and should be treated with similar urgency,” said the study, published in the Journal of Rural Studies.
The aging of Alaska’s commercial fishing workforce has been a concern for several years. The phenomenon is widespread enough that there is a catchphrase for it: the “graying of the fleet”
Other coastal states also have problems with an aging fisheries workforce, but the issue is accentuated in Alaska because of the importance of the size and importance of the industry here, said Marysia Szymkowiak of NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center, one of the two authors.
“Seafood is our number one private sector employer in Alaska, that makes the potential lack of generational turnover a very big deal for our State,” Szymkowiak said by email. There is actually an ongoing bump in young people entering the fishing business in Alaska, but because of high costs, “they need help to diversify, scale up, and be able to succeed, which is why we wrote this paper. That kind of help exists for farmers and has for a long time. Let’s take that example and help our young fishermen in a similar fashion,” she said.
There is a long list of farming-assistance programs that could be used as models for assisting young fishermen, she said.
For example, there are 349 training programs across the nation to help young farmers enter or thrive in agriculture, but only 14 such training programs in the nation to help young fishermen, the study noted.
The money gap is also huge. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2021 provided $17.5 million for its Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program and $7.2 billion in Farm Service Administration ownership and operations loans, NOAA provided $2 million in funds through the Young Fishermen’s Development Act, a bill sponsored by the late Rep. Don Young of Alaska, and $124 million in its fisheries finance loan program.
The study offers policy recommendations for easing younger people’s participation in commercial fisheries. Those include a national census for fisheries participation, such as that which exists for famers; development of a targeted program similar to the Department of Agriculture’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program; expanded availability of insurance programs; and development of comprehensive low-interest loan programs similar to those provided by the Farm Service Agency.
Within Alaska, difficulties encountered by young fishermen have been attributed in part to changes in fishery management.
A 2017 report by Alaska Sea Grant, a statewide education and research program headquartered at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, traced the increase in problems to the transitions of several Alaska fisheries from being open-access harvests, in which anyone could participate, to limited-entry harvests in which participants were required to hold quotas. That report, titled “Turning the Tide,” described both an increase in the average age of quota- and permit-holding fishermen and a decrease in the percentage of those quotas or permits that were held locally.
In 1975, according to the report, fishermen 40 and younger held about half of rural local permits, the report said. By 2016, the typical Alaska fisherman was over 50 years old, and the number of locally held commercial fishing permits in rural areas had dropped by over 30%, according to the report.
Alaska Sea Grant has programs that seek to help younger fishermen. For example, the organization hosts an annual Alaska Young Fishermen’s Summit.
More than lack of money or difficulties with management systems inhibit fisheries participation by younger entrants, Szymkowiak said.
She has heard from many older fishermen who say they are discouraging their children from carrying on in the industry because of a transforming ecosystem.
“They don’t see the same future in it that they were afforded. That’s not just about permit prices and the costs of fishing more generally but the unknowns posed by climate change which has really started to take its toll across Alaska’s fisheries,” she said.
A policy response would be to help young fishermen diversify their harvests, have shifting marketing strategies and be otherwise nimble “so that they don’t go belly up when the one fishery they depend on has a bad year or several bad years.”