Much of my perspective, direction and good fortune in life can be traced back to my upbringing in Naknek. For someone who has never fished commercially, it was all about the fish. Every job and all revelry governed by the salmon run and the tide. Life in that little town brought endless discovery of old buildings, new trails and increasingly creative ways of trying to get away with something. Anything. So wrapped up in each season, I barely grasped the importance of home in the larger seafood economy. Turns out we’re kind of a big deal. Bristol Bay is one of Alaska’s richest commercial fisheries and provides roughly one-third of all of Alaska’s salmon harvest earnings. The region accounts for 40 percent of the nation’s wild salmon harvest. The best part is the resource and the wealth and well-being that it provides is self-renewing.
Here’s a few more numbers though. Since the inception of limited entry in 1975, local permit ownership has declined from 1,372 to 707. This loss stems from permit transfers to non-locals, but also and increasingly from the out-migration of permit holders from the region. Overall, the region has suffered a net loss of 197 permits since 1975 due to the relocation of permit holders. At the same time, non-resident permit holders have added 260 to their ranks through permit transfers and another 208 permits through migration. Trends toward non-resident permit ownership are exacerbated by a lack of young people entering the industry, a problem commonly referred to as the ‘graying of the fleet.’
Overall, the mean age of a Bristol Bay drift permit holder has only increased from 45.5 years to 47.5 years between 1975 and 2013. Not too bad. The mean age of non-resident drift permit holders has actually decreased since 1975, from 48.3 years to 46.9 years in 2013. This has not been the case for our local drift permit holders, who have seen an increase in mean age from 42.7 years to 50.6 years.
As local permit holders approach retirement age, the potential impacts of succession of access rights on rural livelihoods and coastal economies becomes an increasingly pressing management issue. A lack of local young people entering the industry coupled with the loss of local access and participation in the fishery is disconcerting for many reasons. For starters, young people bring vibrancy, creativity and innovation to a place and an industry. We need engaged young people to help make our communities better, solve the problems we face today, and carry on the ever-changing daily, seasonal and annual practices that give life to local culture and community. Secondly, we know that there is a powerful inter-relationship between commercial and subsistence fisheries and the crucial role that harvesting wild foods plays in maintaining cultural traditions, social identities and food security in rural Alaska. Studies continue to show that households with fishing permits are often also the households that are high producers of subsistence foods and the most important providers in food sharing networks. The intimate entangling of local fishing jobs with these dimensions of local life means that loss of local commercial access extends beyond earned income.
Right now, across Alaska, there are many, many organizations, institutions and communities working to find solutions to sustained local fisheries participation in coastal Alaska. The Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation offers an incredible permit loan program that is helping to put fishing permits back into local hands. The University of Alaska is working closely with state agencies and others to create and implement the Alaska Maritime Workforce Development Plan intended to better prepare Alaskans to meet our maritime workforce needs. The Alaska Marine Conservation Council recently launched the Alaska Young Fishermen’s Network, designed to connect young fishermen across the state and identify potential solutions to the specific challenges they face. We are also helping to lead a collaborative research project which focuses on barriers to entry and the ‘graying of the fleet’ in Bristol Bay and Kodiak Island fishing communities. Finally, last summer I spoke with local fishermen in Naknek who had purposely hired local youth, some of whom were entirely green, as crew. Collectively, these efforts are operating at varying scales to create opportunity, enhance inter-generational access and strengthen local participation in local fisheries. This is what makes communities resilient. The problems underlying and arising from the exodus of fishing rights and wealth from our fishing communities are complex, multi-dimensional and diverse. Keeping our communities as strong and healthy as the salmon run takes a lot of work. Ensuring local participation in local fisheries is only one part of what needs to be a multi-faceted approach to enhancing rural livelihoods and local well-being, but it is a vital one.