The Graying of the Alaskan Fishing Fleet
Rachel Donkersloot and Courtney Carothers
Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, 58:3, 30-42

Summary: The trend of increasing age of rights holders in Alaska’s commercial fisheries has become a cause for concern among the state’s lawmakers, industry members, and coastal communities. The average age of a state limited entry permit holder—50 years in 2014—represents an increase of 10 years since 1980. Not only are current rights holders remaining in the fishery beyond the expected retirement age, fewer young fishermen have replaced them. In 1980, 38% of permits were held by people under 40, while the share in 2013 was only 17%. The study makes several important points about the underlying dynamics of these trends, including the numerous and complex barriers to entry for today’s enterprising fishermen. The first barrier to entry and upward mobility in fisheries are the high costs of fishing rights and the lack of access to capital and financial/institutional literacy required to start a small business (e.g., securing bank loans, paying taxes, purchasing vessels, gear, and insurance). Risk and uncertainty compound the challenges of starting a small business in the fishing industry, and many study participants described seasons in which their landings did not cover their expenses. Veteran fishermen noted a lack of involvement in fishing practices by young people, particularly in contrast to their own memories of fishing as very young children. The study also explores the interconnectedness of community-level change in rights holdings and movement of people. In the Bristol Bay fisheries, a larger share of the loss of permits is due to transfer of those permits. In many other state fisheries, permit loss is characterized by permit holders moving from rural communities local to the fishery to nonlocal, urban, or rural communities (e.g., regional hubs, Anchorage, or the Mat-Su valley). The most salient and recurrent themes revealed by this study were the “social, cultural, and economic value of subsistence foods and harvesting practices” in rural fishing communities, and the persistent threat to these ways of life represented by the privatization and commodification of access rights.