Rural Alaska losing access to fisheries, report says

Capt. Lindsay Johnson on the F/V Sika, along with boat dog Tsirku, whose name is Tlingit for “big salmon.” (Berett Wilber)

The increasing costs to get into Alaska’s fisheries are making it difficult for new fishermen to break into the business — especially in rural, coastal communities. That’s according to a recent report from University of Alaska Fairbanks and SeaGrant scientists.

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They worry that in an industry defined by hard work, a fishermen’s success now depends on access to money.

The year is 1971. America was losing the Vietnam War war. The Beatles broke up. The personal computer wouldn’t exist for another decade. And Jim Moore moved to Southeast Alaska to go fishing. He got in just in time.

“For me to get fishing, it only cost me in the neighborhood of $15,000. Today, that would probably be in the neighborhood of $150,000,” Moore said.

A little history: Two years after Moore put his first hooks in the water, Alaska passed the Limited Entry Act. It created a set number of commercial fishing permits. For the first time, your right to catch salmon depended on being a permit holder.

The first generation of permit holders were awarded permits from the state, based on their fishing record. Moore got one. Others weren’t so lucky.

Courtney Carothers is a Professor of Fisheries at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“When older fishermen reflect on those years, and the ways in which the distribution of those limited entry permits divided families — eight brothers, one of them got a permit, the others didn’t — it started to create long-lasting effects in terms of who had livelihood access, who ended up becoming successful, and who didn’t,” Carothers said.

After four years of research in rural fishing towns, Carothers’ team just published a report on a big problem: permits held by people local to their fishery have declined by 30%. Alaska’s coastal communities are losing their rights to fish.

“Anyone can buy a limited entry permit, so it tends to benefit people that have access to capital. The trend is that outside fishermen have more access to capital, are wealthier, and are buying those permits up,” Carothers said.

So, even as limited entry protected existing fishermen, conserved fish stocks, and made fishing safer, it inadvertently created a trend Carothers calls a paramount problem.

“Globally, we’re seeing these programs that have limited and commodified the right to fish have had really big impacts for certain groups of people: young people, low-income fishermen, rural communities, indigenous communities,” Carothers said.

Flash forward to 2004, when a fisherman named Lindsay Johnson started deckhanding on a friend’s seiner. A decade later, she’d worked across Southeast, Bristol Bay, Prince William Sound, and earned her Captain’s license. She was ready to buy her own operation.

Net permit loss in Alaska’s fisheries since 1975, from Carothers’ report “Turning the Tide.”

“It became clear that the fishing I knew how to do wasn’t really in my budget. I couldn’t afford a seine permit,” Johnson said. “Ultimately, I decided on trolling because I could afford it.”

Market value for a Southeast seine permit today is around $230,000. In comparison, a troll permit costs a sixth of that — $35,0000. But even to afford that, plus the F/V Sika, a wood troller, Johnson had to take out a loan.

Actually, three.

“I have a loan from a friend, and from the state for the boat. And a loan from the state from the permit,” Jonhson said.

That’s before paying for gear, gas, groceries, and crew. It’s a lot of risk, especially as a new fisherman with no way to know how her season will go.

“It’s more debt than I’ve ever been in in my life,” Jonhson said. “If they want to help young fishermen, I just think those financial resources are huge.”

Based on Carothers research, Johnson is a textbook example of what it takes to get into fishing today. With experience, social fishing connections, good credit, practice running a business, sympathetic contributors, and state-sponsored low-interest loans — she made it. At least to the starting line.

But what about people who don’t have one or two or all of those qualifications? Carothers sees a generation of would-be fishermen stuck on shore.

“Young people that we talked to — they’re noting that yes, it costs a lot to get it,” Carothers said. “But they’ve had a lack of exposure to fishing in their communities, a lack of experienced knowledge, family connections [to fishing] that are crucial. They’ve actually been discouraged from pursuing fishing careers because it’s seen as a risky, very expensive situation that may not pay out.”

And as permits leave rural fishing communities — when they’re sold, or permit holders move away — they take the opportunity for young people to learn the trade with them

“You see that, all through Southeast Alaska,” Carothers said. “This huge dispossession of fishing rights — boat harbors that used to have 30 boats now have a couple.”

That creates a chain of tough consequences, Carothers says. In small communities where fishing is one of the few options to make money, the loss of a permit reverberates. Permits represent businesses that support families, buy groceries and pay taxes.

Losing those businesses hurts the economic health of the whole community — making it even less likely young fishermen can afford to buy in.

“They have to have a rich uncle or a leg up in the system,” Carothers said. “There’s a lot of concern looking 20, 30 years . . . who is it that will be able to access our fisheries?”

Because Alaska’s fishing fleet is getting older. The average fishermen is a decade older than they would have been in 1975 — the typical permit holder is 50.

Jim Moore turned 71 this year.

“I’ve got my grandchildren now that are learning,” Moore said. “I’ll be depending more on them to do the heavy lifting. But I won’t be retiring for at least another five years. Maybe thirty years. Don’t know.”

Like Johnson, Moore is lucky: many fishermen don’t see anyone coming up to take their place.

“Fishing used to be this career that took anybody,” Carothers said. “It was this option where you didn’t need an education, you didn’t need wealth in your family. There’s this opportunity for you to work hard and be rewarded. And the landscape’s totally shifted now.”

Carothers’ research includes a suite of policy ideas gleaned from Canada, Norway, Iceland and the Atlantic Coast, places that have taken steps to solve this same problem in their fisheries. They range from setting up small, exclusively local fisheries, reserving some fishing rights for young and indigenous people, apprenticeship programs, and more.

“What’s needed here is some policy shifts. Not changes in terms of what fishermen need to be doing. We really think it’s a problem at the level of state and federal policy,” Carothers said. “There need to be some other options for entry.”

Carothers says she’d like to see the Governor appoint a Fisheries Task Force to work on it.

But with Alaska’s state budget in crisis, Carothers worries there’s a lack of political will to solve the problem — even with solutions on the table.

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