Fishing jobs declined in Alaska in 2021

  • Nelly Hand gives a Copper River king salmon to Ezekiel Brown, captain of the F/V Lucid Dream, while offloading salmon to his tender before heading back to Cordova on Thursday, May 20, 2021. (Emily Mesner / ADN)

Last year brought another series of job losses for the Alaskan fishing industry, even after the massive declines in 2020.

The Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development’s analysis of fishing jobs, which it releases annually, shows that 2021 did not bring a full recovery back to the industry the way it did to others after the low during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Overall, the industry lost another 134 jobs, on top of the approximately 1,000 it lost in 2020.

“While some harvests were notably large in 2021, no fishery significantly boosted its employment,” wrote Joshua Warren, an economist for the Alaska Department of Labor, in the report. “Larger harvests don’t necessarily translate to job growth.”

Though there are commercial fisheries operating all over Alaska year-round, employment usually spikes from May through September for salmon harvesting. Of all the sectors, salmon tends to be the largest employer each year — about 56% of total harvesting jobs last year, according to the Department of Labor. Salmon continued to be the largest in 2021 as well, though not proportionally, considering that the 2021 harvest and exvessel value were the third-largest each in state history.

In 2021, the state recorded an average monthly employment of 6,449 salmon jobs, 134 fewer jobs than the 2020 average, which itself was more than 1,000 jobs down from 2019. Salmon jobs have been declining since 2015, when they hit an average of 8,501, the highest in the last 20 years.

Salmon jobs are highly seasonal, though — while there are nearly none in April, before the first salmon start to return, the average in July is more than 20,000. But even that July peak was down in 2021 by nearly 300 jobs. That number is also down significantly from a high in 2013 of about 25,000 jobs, according to the Department of Labor.

It’s hard to say exactly why salmon harvesting jobs declined, though people involved in the industry in 2021 reported difficulty finding employees for both processing and harvesting, just like most businesses across the American economy. As the economy rebounded from the job lows of the COVID-19 pandemic, employers found themselves competing for a scarcer workforce. Sam Friedman, an economist with the McKinley Group, said the evidence seems to indicate “there were less people catching more fish and processing more fish.”

Data compiled by the McKinley Research Group for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute show that processing jobs dropped significantly from 2020 to 2021 as well. Peak monthly employment fell by more than 800 jobs, and the average monthly employment fell from 8,114 jobs to 7,388. However, the percentage of Alaska residents ticked up slightly, from 21% to 22%.

The opposite was true of the harvesting sector, according to data compiled by Fish and Game on behalf of ASMI. The percentage of Alaska residents in the harvesting sector fell from 56% to 53%, with total employment falling about 100 jobs between the two years. Most of those jobs were actually among skippers, though — 200 skipper jobs were lost, while 100 crew jobs were added, according to the data.

Halibut harvesting is the second-largest employment sector after salmon, without about 14% of the jobs to salmon’s 56%. Three regions gained halibut jobs last year: Southeast, Southcentral and Kodiak, totaling about 30 extra jobs, an increase of about 3.5% for the sector. Employment in groundfish harvesting, the next largest sector, fell about 6.8%, while sablefish fell about 13.9%.

Late 2021 also brought a year of major closures for crab fisheries in the Bering Sea region, with the first complete closure of the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery in decades and a nearly 90% cut in the total allowable catch for Bering Sea snow crab due to a near-complete population collapse. However, most crab jobs are actually in Southeast Alaska, where the employment slightly increased; the employment in the Aleutians held steady, while Kodiak and Southcentral both lost crab harvesting jobs. There are two peaks for crab employment — February and October — and the February employment only declined slightly while October fell to nearly half of 2020′s average, according to the Department of Labor.

“Gains in some of the other months muted 2021′s loss to just 13 (crab) jobs,” Warren wrote.

Regionally, Southeast posted a record year for salmon harvest in both poundage and value, as well as a higher average number of jobs for the industry. All Southeast’s other harvesting sectors added jobs or stayed steady except for sablefish, according to the Department of Labor. The Aleutians and Pribilofs regions held steady except for in groundfish, which fell nearly 18%; Kodiak lost jobs in crab and sablefish, but compensated overall with salmon and halibut increases.

Bristol Bay, which posted a near-record harvest for salmon in 2021, saw employment in salmon stay nearly flat, with the peak in July actually dropping slightly. The tiny herring fishery there posted job increases, while crab jobs disappeared because the red king crab fishery closed. Salmon jobs declined in Southcentral Alaska by about 2.1%, but the biggest regional loss was in the Yukon Delta, where the salmon stocks continued to crash. In the last four years, the region has seen its summer annual employment in commercial salmon fishing drop from about 1,000 jobs to about 144 in 2021. Scientists aren’t sure exactly why the salmon are declining, pointing to climate change, competition with hatchery salmon, bycatch and phytoplankton blooms as potential causes, according to the Department of Labor.

“The last few years of job losses in the Yukon Delta have been the largest our data have recorded in Alaska,” Warren wrote in the report. “Salmon harvesting jobs have plunged to near-zero as the fish fail to return in adequate numbers for both subsistence and commercial use.”

2022 hasn’t quite come to a close yet — the salmon fisheries are closed for the year and halibut are due to close at the beginning of December, but the crab fisheries are beginning to open, as well as other winter fisheries. Warren notes in the Department of Labor report that the 2021 trends in salmon harvesting seemed to continue in 2022, and future harvesting employment will likely be influenced by environmental factors like climate change and biological factors that influence salmon populations.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game released its statewide salmon summary for 2022 on Nov. 10, noting that the overall harvest of salmon was down by about 31% —mostly due to a decline in pink salmon, which is normal for even-numbered years. However, the value was up nearly $80 million from 2021, for an estimated total of $720.4 million.

More than half of that value came from sockeye salmon, and most of those came from Bristol Bay. The record harvest this year in the region helped push the 2022 statewide sockeye salmon catch to the largest on record, according to Fish and Game.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the closing date for the halibut season to early December.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected].

Updated: 
11/17/2022 - 8:05pm