January 28th, 2020 marked a major victory for proponents of the Young Fishermen’s Development Act (YFDA) (H.R. 1240, S.496) as the House Natural Resources Committee approved the Fishing Communities Coalition (FCC)-sponsored legislation. Championed by Reps. Don Young (R-AK), Seth Moulton (D-MA), and Jared Golden (D-ME), this nonpartisan legislation aims to address the graying of America’s fishing fleet through the establishment of the first federal workforce development program for commercial fishing in the United States.
“I had the opportunity to invest in commercial fishing in the 1980s. After three decades I can say with authority that things have changed. Nearly all the dynamics of running a successful commercial fishing business are more challenging; from the regulatory process to the technological changes to the overall business plan, it’s harder. The bill will support rising fishermen to get education, training, and mentorship to stay afloat,” says AMCC Fisheries Policy Director and commercial fisherman, Theresa Peterson.
Modeled after the Beginning Farmers and Rancher Development Program which aims to support young entrants as they endeavor to join an aging pool of food producers, the bill would institute the creation of a nationally sponsored Young Fishermen’s Development Grant Program. Through partnerships and collaborations with nongovernmental, community-based fishing organizations, and school-based fisheries, fishermen under the age of 35 will be eligible for education and training.
“Commercial fisheries look very different now than they did when my parents and grandparents entered the fishery. My generation is experiencing new barriers and uncertainties from increased political pressure from mining interests and large population centers, to climate change. A program like YFDA could help give us the tools and education to maintain involvement in our historic fisheries and improve workforce development resources for new entrants,” AMCC’s Working Waterfronts Program Manager / Policy Analyst Jamie O’Connor.
The bill, which has been making its way through D.C. since 2017, has deep ties to Alaska Marine Conservation Council’s “Graying of the Fleet” project. Conducted between 2014 – 2017, the project examined the social, cultural, economic and geographic factors impacting local participation in fisheries in the Bristol Bay and Kodiak Island regions. Lead investigator and former AMCC employee, Rachel Donkersloot, worked in partnership with the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Alaska Sea Grant, before presenting her findings nationally and internationally.
Among one of the more startling findings from Donskersloot’s investigation was the average age of Alaska fishery permit holders. In 2015, the average was 50, nearly 10 years older than in 1980. Additionally, the number of Alaska residents under the age of 40 holding fishing permits has fallen from 38-percent of the total number of permits in 1980 to 17-percent in 2013.
In an effort to support commercial fishing opportunities for new entrants in coastal Alaskan communities, AMCC led the charge for the creation of YFDA legislation with support from national partners involved in the Fishing Communities Coalition. Through advocacy trips to Washington D.C., collecting signatures, providing research, and encouraging Alaskans to write their lawmakers, AMCC has championed this legislation for years.
“Alaska’s economy and people are supported by our robust small-boat commercial fisheries, which anchor meaningful livelihoods for families in coastal communities and summon a diverse workforce in the processing sector. Our food systems need young harvesters. Consolidation of harvest opportunity is alarming beyond the implications on fishing culture – increasingly, we find our connection to nutritious food outsourced to entities that have no direct accountability to the people they feed or the ecosystems that sustain their operations. Young harvesters see this happening and, in spite of daunting forces beyond their control, are starting businesses to address the issue. The Young Fishermen’s Development Act addresses a real need for a workforce that is critical for Alaska’s future, and AMCC will continue to be its champion,” says AMCC’s Interim Executive Director, Marissa Wilson.