Study pinpoints trend toward fisheries specialization

Commercial fishermen in Alaska have gotten older in the past three decades. As it turns out, they’ve become more specialized, too.

Fewer permits overall are in the water; between the early 1990s and 2014, commercial fishing permits in Alaska decreased by 25 percent. On top of that, fewer individual fishermen are moving between fisheries.

From 1988-2014, the number of individuals holding multiple permits declined from 30 percent to 20 percent, according to a study published in the journal Fish and Fisheries.

The bottom line: fishermen are increasingly putting all their economic eggs into one basket, and that makes them more vulnerable to the ups and downs of fishing.

The study was born out of a workgroup that met through the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California Santa Barbara, said co-author Anne Beaudreau, an associate professor of fisheries at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The original intent was to study the long-term effects of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, but the data on fisheries specialization arose out of that work, she said.

“As we worked on this, we realized there are so many things that have caused long-term changes in the Gulf of Alaska; in the fisheries, it’s really hard to see the long-term effects of the oil spill,” she said. “A lot of the focus of the working group was on the biological effects … this paper sort of came out of the end of that.”

The group examined case studies in commercial fisheries: the Prince William Sound herring fishery, the statewide Pacific halibut fishery, salmon fisheries in Bristol Bay and in Prince William Sound, and fisheries in the region affected by the Valdez spill. All the fisheries have their own driving dynamics and factors of change, but common threads among many of them were long-term participation declines and increasing specialization.

Some of that may be loss of opportunity; the cost of entering fisheries has steadily increased as limited entry and fishery rationalization have come into play in Alaska fisheries.

Some of the fisheries in the case study are also not available due to losses in populations. The herring fishery in Prince William Sound, for example, crashed a few years after the Valdez spill and has never truly recovered.

This is not an across-the-board trend, though. Some fishermen have been able to look elsewhere as their fisheries change, Beaudreau said.

“I would say that fishermen are really good at diversifying,” she said. “I think that tends to be part of the nature of commercial fishing. You’re dealing with a lot of uncertainty — changes in fish populations, changes in regulations, changes in markets — all these are pressures that commercial fishermen are really good at responding and adapting to … For somebody, (finding opportunity) might mean specializing in something. For others, that might mean diversifying.”

Specialization doesn’t always mean immediate impacts. For Bristol Bay, where sockeye salmon reign supreme, fishermen have actually seen less variability in their income and higher overall income.

However, the point is the long-term fragility. Sockeye salmon are vulnerable to ocean forces, as was seen in the lower-than-expected returns across the Gulf of Alaska in 2018 that left fishermen in Kodiak, Chignik, Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound holding loose nets for much of the season.

But the long-term warning flags of fishery instability remain, Beaudreau said.

“I think it’s really more of the longer term concern,” she said. “If you’re putting all your eggs in one basket, what happens if there’s some major impact to sockeye populations?”

The specialization study is the latest in a spate of research in recent years on cost of entry, reduction in opportunity and the increasing average age of commercial fishermen in the state known as the “graying of the fleet.”

Fishermen statewide have noticed a trend among their peers that fewer young people are getting into the industry, but the studies lend statistics to back up observations and support potential legislative fixes.

The study cites the work of another UAF researcher, Courtney Carothers, several times in reference to the impacts of the Pacific halibut fishery particularly. Carothers and a group of other researchers produced the 2017 “Turning the Tide” report, highlighting a number of the issues in loss of fishery access in rural communities and what that means for the future of those communities and the Alaska fleet.

Since the implementation of limited entry programs in the 1970s, the number of rural residents holding permits in their local state fisheries has declined by 30 percent, and halibut quota holdings by locals in rural communities has fallen 50 percent since the implementation of the individual fishing quota, or IFQ, program in 1992 according to the Turning the Tide report. Much of that is due to the cost of permits in a limited entry fishery or shares in an IFQ fishery such as halibut or Bering Sea crab.

Among the recommendations produced in that report were facilitating nonmarket-based access to commercial fisheries, establishing youth or student access licenses or mentorships programs, implementing programs to protect rural access to fisheries, supporting infrastructure to maintain fisheries and establishing a statewide fisheries access taskforce.

Though lawmakers have expressed interest in it, legislation addressing these issues has yet to make it into law. One bill introduced in 2017, House Bill 188, would have established regional fisheries trusts allowing communities to form trusts to purchase commercial fishing licenses communally and lease them to fishermen who would otherwise not be able to afford them. After receiving a number of hearings, the bill was held in the House Labor and Commerce Committee and has not been revived in the current session.

Beaudreau said her group’s study did not highlight potential solutions but rather shed light on the problem — and, among other items, how salmon fisheries can serve as a baseline fishery for commercial fishermen across the state.

“Basically, we kind of saw salmon as a safety net, and it just speaks to how important it is for Alaskans,” she said.

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
05/08/2019 - 9:12am

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