proaches the issue from the wrong angle.
“The question’s almost framed as: do young
people even want to go fishing anymore giv-
en 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 oppor-
tunity? 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 law-
yer. 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
“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 bar-
rier 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 inter-
views in coastal communities, fewer youth
living in semi-urban areas, such as Kodiak,
were involved or interested in pursuing fish-
ing. However, in places where there were few-
er 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
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
“It provides for the development of local
skills and knowledge, and these functions
are highly valued. And I think they contrib-
ute significantly to one’s identity and sense
of place and sense of community, what they
enjoy most about life in the community,”
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,”
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, infor-
mation, 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
“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
Fishers set net
in Bristol Bay.
Isaac Stone Simonelli is a freelance
journalist and former managing editor for
the Phuket Gazette.