Alaska Charts the Course for Young Fishermen
by Linda Behnken
Along America’s coastlines, fishing communities face stiff headwinds when it comes to providing in-place economic opportunities for young people. Nowhere is this more evident than Alaska.
The problem: Today’s commercial fishermen are approaching retirement age with few young fishermen to replace them. The average age of Alaska’s fishery permit holders is now 50, up from an average of 40 in 1980. This troubling dynamic, which is not unique to our state, poses a serious and growing challenge to America’s fishing economies and the jobs that depend on them.
Alaskans can attest that this “graying of the fleet” does not reflect a lack of interest in fishing careers, but rather high entry barriers facing young commercial fishermen. We have seen this in the tremendous response to our growing efforts to engage and train the next generation of fishermen. Young people want to get out on the water, but they need opportunities to acquire a diverse set of skills, ranging from navigation and diesel mechanics to fisheries regulations and business management. Of course, they must also be good at catching fish!
Breaking down these high barriers to entry demands a serious and coordinated national response. That’s why the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association (ALFA) is proud to be a member of the national Fishing Communities Coalition (FCC), a group of conservation-minded commercial fishing organizations that is working to advance legislation to address this problem.
The bipartisan Young Fishermen’s Development Act (YFDA), which is inspired in part by Alaska’s growing community-based efforts, has been introduced in both the House (H.R.1240) and Senate (S.496). The legislation, which has picked up bipartisan and multi-coastal co-sponsors in both houses of Congress, establishes the first national grant program to support initiatives to educate, train, and mentor young and beginning fishermen. ALFA is grateful that Alaska’s Senators Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski and Representative Don Young have taken a leadership role in this critical effort. The legislation was examined at a recent U.S. House Natural Resources Committee hearing.
The YFDA’s $2 million annual budget —which is fully funded using fines paid by fishermen who have violated rules — gives fishing associations, universities, tribal organizations, and others the opportunity to compete for grant funding to train young commercial fishermen. The grants cannot be used to purchase fishing permits, quota, or other harvesting rights.
Alaskans can attest that this approach works. As the severity of the “graying of the fleet” challenge in our community grew, ALFA connected with a local skipper, Eric Jordan, who took aspiring young fishermen on as crew and dedicated his valuable time to teaching and training them on the job. We worked with Eric to advance a common goal: providing motivated young people with safe and well-guided real-world experience in commercial fishing, the lifestyle it provides, and the vital role it plays in supporting coastal communities.
With Eric’s help and support from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Fishery Innovation Fund and the City of Sitka, AK, ALFA launched a crewmember apprentice program. In each of the past two years, over 100 young people have applied to the program. This is far more than we can accommodate, and highlights both young people’s strong interest in commercial fishing careers and the demand for more entry-level opportunities. One participant, Mackenzie Gilliam, observed: “As a woman, I think it is sometimes difficult for men to take you seriously when it comes to doing physical work. This program is helping women get a foot in the door in the fishing industry and proving that we can do the job just as well as anyone else.”
As an organization representing independent, community-based fishermen, ALFA is committed to working with the FCC to support the next generation of fishermen. Federal funding to sustain our program and support the launch of similar programs in other communities will make that possible.
The Young Fishermen’s Development Act will help equip the next generation of commercial fishermen to support our nation’s sustainable fisheries and the coastal communities that rely upon them. The Act will also ensure American-caught seafood continues to be served in homes and restaurants across our country.
Supporting our nation’s young fishermen through the Young Fishermen’s Development Act is a solid investment in our fishing communities and in our country.
Linda Behnken is Executive Director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, a member of the Fishing Communities Coalition.