Turning the Tide report explores policy solutions for a graying Alaskan fishing fleet

The aging of the U.S. workforce is a problem faced by many industries as the baby boomer generation reaches retirement age. In Alaska’s commercial fisheries, however, demographics alone can’t explain why young fishermen are not replacing older cohorts. For new entrants into commercial fisheries, access is restricted by policies like the state limited entry permit system and the federal individual transferable quota (IFQ) programs. Further, these policies commodify access rights, meaning rights may be bought and sold on the open market. 

The switch from open to restricted access set in motion a series of changes in Alaska’s commercial fishery systems, one of which has come to be known as the “graying of the fleet”. The average aged fisherman today is 50 years old, a decade older than the average a generation ago. Another significant change is the loss of permit and quota ownership among rural fishing communities, and the impacts it has had on local economies and the social and cultural ties to the commercial fishing industry.

Through ethnographic research in the Kodiak and Bristol Bay regions, study participants shared perspectives on the future of opportunity for the next generation, and the pressing need for policy changes: 

“I would like to see an opportunity for [young people to get into fishing]—because it’s such a big part of our history and our culture now, I think it’s part of who we are and I think it gives people a sense of identity, and if kids don’t have the opportunity to at least try fishing ... then either our identity is changing or we’re losing it.” (Kokhanok commercial fisherman, February 2015)

The project team has released a report titled “Turning the Tide: How can Alaska address the ‘graying of the fleet’ and loss of rural fisheries access?” In this report (available for download here), we delve into the barriers to entry in commercial fishing and explain factors contributing to these trends. The report also details what other fisheries policy makers in the U.S. and around the world have done to address these issues, and considers those solutions that—based on the study’s research findings—could address specific challenges in Alaska.

The report lists the following recommendations: 1) explore non-market based access to commercial fishing to facilitate new entry and provide diversification opportunities, 2) establish youth permits or student licenses and mentorship or apprenticeship programs to provide experience and pathways to ownership, 3) develop mechanisms to protect and diversify community-based fishing access, 4) support local infrastructure to maintain local fisheries, 5) establish a statewide Fishing Access for Alaskans Task Force to review and consider collaborative solutions to reverse the trend of the graying fleet and loss of fishing access in rural Alaska.

“Young people should be thought of as paramount in fisheries management policies. In other words they should be promoted and not discriminated against. After all if we want communities involved in the future, one must think of the young 2nd generation fishermen.”  (Kodiak commercial fisherman, August 2014)

Author Contacts:

  • Paula Cullenberg, 907-274-9692, paula.cullenberg@alaska.edu, Alaska Sea Grant
  • Rachel Donkersloot, 907-277-5357, rachel@akmarine.org, Alaska Marine Conservation Council
  • Courtney Carothers, 907-375-1412, clcarothers@alaska.edu, University of Alaska Fairbanks, College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences
  • Jesse Coleman, jmcoleman2@alaska.edu, University of Alaska Fairbanks, College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences 
  • Danielle Ringer, djringer@alaska.edu, University of Alaska Fairbanks, College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences