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Permit Migration and a Graying Fleet

Rural access to fishing permits declines


The tide goes out at Bristol Bay.

Flynn Photography


The high cost of entry into Alaska's limited permit commercial fishing industry appears to be fueling the graying of the fleet and the movement of licenses out of rural coastal communities to more urban locales and out of state. The ramifications of these shifts in the industry are cause for concern, says Paula Cullenberg, professor emeritus, UAF.

“This is a national, an international issue when you limit access to fishing—and there are lots of good reasons to do that—it does create barriers for succession, and that's one big root cause [of the problems in Alaska], there's no doubt about that,” she says.

In Alaska’s early statehood nearly sixty years ago, salmon stocks were dwindling due to overfishing. To combat this, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game employed management strategies designed to allow for long-term sustainability of fishery resources, says Marcus Gho, an economist at the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

However, the department's efforts were not viewed as sufficient to ensure the sustainability of commercial fishing in Alaska. In 1972, Alaskans amended the state constitution, allowing for limited entry, which is a system that requires permits to fish; some fisheries, such as salmon, allow only a certain number of permits to ensure both sustainability of the fish population and preservation of the economic health of the fishery, Gho says.

At the end of last year, there were 13,996 limited entry permits. Between 1975 and 2017, there has been a net gain of 431 permits to Alaska residents through transfers from nonresidents, Gho explains. During the same period of time, the net change of permits that accompanied people who moved outside of Alaska has been 1,148. This comes to an annual average of 16.7 permits leaving the state each year, an overall decrease of about 5 percent.

“Is 5 percent substantial? For many individuals any permits leaving the state of Alaska is substantial but for others, it is not,” Gho says.

However, this decrease does not account for the movement of permit holders from rural Alaska to urban areas. A total of 54.2 percent of all limited permits were issued to rural Alaskans starting in 1975. By the end of 2017, rural Alaskans held only 48.1 percent.

“I think that the implications for the succession of the fishing industry in our state are significant. If we lose Alaska participation in fisheries, if we don't have a strong participation, we are losing job opportunities and economic input in our state,” Cullenberg says. Not only does the state lose tax opportunities, it loses overall economic gains from the fishing industry if the people who are harvesting the state's natural resource are not Alaska residents.

“I don't think there's really anyone in the state who likes the trend of what we're seeing in terms of loss of permits from rural communities and increasing ages,” Cullenberg says.

Alarm bells have been going off about the graying of the fishing fleet for years, but in many ways changes in workforce demographics, which now comprise a higher percentage of people over the age of fifty-five, follow state and national trends across many industries.

“One reason for the decline is that there are simply fewer teens in Alaska than there were ten years ago [who] often have less time due to education demands; they tend to work in entry-level, part-time service jobs,” Mali Abrahamson, an economist at the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, wrote in an Alaska labor stats report.

Gho notes that between 1980 and 2017 the average age of permit holders increased from 40.9 to 51.1, an increase of nearly 25 percent. During those same years, the change in the median age of Alaskans increased from 26 to about 35.

“No matter how you look at it, the statistics seem to suggest that our population is aging. While there are only a few fisheries wherein the average age of permit holders has decreased, most permit fisheries have permit holders who have experienced age inflation to various degrees,” Gho says.

There are numerous reasons that the average age of permit holders is changing, some a natural reflection of changes in the composition of the state’s population and others warning signs of increased barriers to entry.

“A lot of it has to do with younger generations going to school more and working less than teens and young adults in the past. That, coupled with a soft labor market, is going to depress the youth participation rate,” Abrahamson says. “As an economist, the most interesting thing I find is that it’s not just economic factors that keep people in [or] out of fisheries. It’s also social. Tribal, family, and other factors weigh into workers’ decisions that we really can't measure outside of in-depth socioeconomic analyses and intensive surveys.”

Such research was published by Cullenberg; Rachel Donkersloot, the working waterfronts program director at Alaska Marine Conservation Council; and University of Alaska Fairbanks associate professor Courtney Carothers in a report titled “Turning the Tide: How can Alaska address 'graying of the fleet' and loss of rural fisheries access.”

Though Donkersloot agrees that the social barrier is huge, she says framing the question as whether or not kids from rural communities are choosing to leave the village for increased economic and educational opportunities approaches the issue from the wrong angle.

“The question’s almost framed as: do young people even want to go fishing anymore given changing ambitions and pathways, new economies, or perceived better opportunities,” Donkersloot says. “I think that definitely plays a role, but I think the question we should be asking is if a young person in Alaska wants to go fishing—and especially a young person in rural coastal Alaska—is there a viable opportunity? Is there a pathway for them to achieve that opportunity? Can it be realistically achieved? Can it be envisioned?”

For those youth who do not have direct connections to the industry, one primary barrier is the high cost of entry, similar to pursuing a career as a medical doctor or lawyer. Additionally, even if funds are found, there’s a significant financial risk to enter the industry as an operator. And, as Donkersloot notes, there are no guarantees in fishing; a bad season or two could completely ruin an independent fisher.

“We have heard a lot of discussion about the lost family connection to fishing and the lack of experience and knowledge that comes with that lost connection, and that's a barrier as well,” Donkersloot says. “I think as we see more permits leaving rural Alaska, we see how the connection to that industry and the development of that knowledge and skill becomes a little bit more precarious. That's where we're going to see that social barrier playing a bigger role as well.”

Cullenberg points out that during interviews in coastal communities, fewer youth living in semi-urban areas, such as Kodiak, were involved or interested in pursuing fishing. However, in places where there were fewer alternatives, that number rose. Finally, in traditional Alaska Native communities that are heavily family-oriented, the percentage of interested youth increased.

“When there were communities that had a really high loss of permits, the young people didn't have much in the way of [fishing] role models in those communities,” Cullenberg says, noting that under such circumstances youth were less able to imagine entering the industry.

Flynn Photography

Fishers set net in Bristol Bay.

​Donkersloot also believes that the migration of permits out of rural communities impacts opportunity perceptions.

“As fewer and fewer fishing rights are held by rural Alaskans, I think that changes how the opportunities are perceived in rural Alaska. So if it’s not your father or your mother or your uncle that holds that right, how do you get the experience on board? Do you get that crew job? Are you even aware that it’s an opportunity?” she asks.

At the most basic level, fishing in rural regions is more than an important source of income—it also functions as a community builder, a way for families to work together as multi-generational crews. There are teaching opportunities through these community connections. Fishing also provides food security, as commercial fishing families play an integral role in the systems harvest and in sharing networks.

“It provides for the development of local skills and knowledge, and these functions are highly valued. And I think they contribute significantly to one’s identity and sense of place and sense of community, what they enjoy most about life in the community,” Donkersloot says.

Cullenberg and Donkersloot both worry that permits migrating to urban areas or out of state is closing off opportunities to members of rural communities.

However, Cullenberg makes it clear that “Turning the Tide”, released in December 2017, was not aimed at dismantling the current limited permit system.

“The system that we have in our state is really pretty embedded. I think that our attempt is to provide some suggestions about how to go forward and recognize this problem of succession into the fishing industry,” Cullenberg says.

Throughout the world, there are examples of governments finding ways to knock down barriers to entry to the seafood industry: for instance, a lobster apprenticeship program through the Maine Department of Marine Resources. The program is specifically intended to support youths entering the lobster industry, as it is difficult to get a lobster permit in the state.

“There are also other countries that have used things like having a local zone around their fishery that enables local people to harvest a limited amount of fish in their region. And that, again, supports entry into the fishery without having to pay that huge price for access,” Cullenberg says.

In Alaska, there are a few areas with similar restrictions through super-exclusivity regulations. “Super-exclusive registration in the Chignik state waters cod fishery was intended to help preserve the local character of the fishery, though local fishermen are then somewhat constrained in their opportunities to fish elsewhere in the state,” according to a 2009 report prepared for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council and Gulf of Alaska Coastal Communities Coalition.

Another example of an attempt within the state to help youth enter the industry is the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program, which is designed to provide training, information, and networking opportunities for commercial fishermen early in their careers.

The Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association (ALFA) is also taking steps to lower the barrier of entry.

“ALFA is committed to helping the next generation of fishermen and ensuring residents of Alaska’s coastal communities have access to our fisheries. Through a number of programs, we are helping the next generation of commercial fishermen launch and support viable commercial fishing businesses,” the association’s website states. One example of ALFA’s efforts is its Deckhand Apprenticeship Program.

“There is a whole range of possibilities—and you layer on that the Alaska Constitution; we have a really strong equal access to natural resources provision in our Constitution,” Cullenberg says.

However, the strongest recommendation in the “Turning the Tide” report called for the governor to put together a task force of stakeholders and experts to further investigate the graying of the fleet and movement of permits from rural communities to urban areas and out of state. Because of the many different fisheries in the state, each with its own dynamic, there won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution, Cullenberg says.

“What works for Bristol Bay might not work for the Kodiak region [and] might not work for the Alaska Peninsula or the Southeast,” Cullenberg says.

There are really just two questions the state must answer.

“Do we, as a state, value keeping our coastal communities strong and economically healthy?” Cullenberg asks. “If you put in place a policy that prevents local people from accessing, in many cases, the only source of private income available to them, is that a smart policy for the state of Alaska to have in place?”



Isaac Stone Simonelli is a freelance journalist and former managing editor for the Phuket Gazette.

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