By Rachel Donkersloot & Shannon Carroll
Genetic diversity, life history and age structure are important attributes of healthy fisheries. For example, we know that life history factors, including changes in population size structure or species composition, and recruitment variability affect the ecological sustainability of fisheries. Same goes for spatial factors such as a reduction in the geographic range of a fish population or the loss of a subpopulation.
But fisheries are not just ecological systems. Fisheries are socioecological systems and attributes of diversity, history and age structure are important dimensions to consider in social and cultural contexts as well.
Weak recruitments into commercial fisheries in recent decades, termed the graying of the fleet, paired with dramatic shifts in the spatial distribution of fishing benefits and ownership rights, threaten the social and cultural sustainability of Alaska fisheries and fishing communities.
Today, more than three-quarters of Bristol Bay salmon permits are held by nonlocals. Kodiak’s Alutiiq villages have suffered an 84% decrease in the number of young people owning state fishing permits, and a 67% decrease in the number of state permits overall. In the southeast villages of Angoon, Hoonah, Hydaburg, and Kake, the number of young people owning state permits dropped sharply from 131 to only 17 between 1985-2013. These shifts have profound consequences for the health and well-being of Alaska fishery systems.
There is a lot of talk about Alaska’s graying fleet today. A central concern is how the future succession of fishery access rights (i.e., permits, quota) will exacerbate the already high levels of loss experienced in Alaska’s fishing communities. These concerns are well founded but it is worth remembering that our aging fleet is, at this moment, an incredible asset to the industry and our communities.
Alaska’s long-time fishermen serve as repositories of wisdom and much needed mentors. These fishermen are integral to intergenerational learning and ensuring multigenerational connections to place, culture and livelihood. The experiences and insights of veteran community-based fishermen are among the many tools that the next generation needs to be successful. This transfer of local and fishing knowledge, values and practices requires more than a willingness to ‘pass down’ knowledge. This transfer hinges on whether the next generation of fishermen has actual opportunity to enter into the commercial fishing industry and become owner-operators.
AMCC has been at the forefront of efforts to support the next generation of Alaska commercial fishermen. Through research on the graying of the fleet, national legislation such as the Young Fishermen’s Development Program, our active participation at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, and programs like the Young Fishing Fellows Program and Alaska Young Fishermen’s Network, we are dedicated to developing solutions to ensure the socioecological health of our fisheries.
As part of this effort, we have been watching and weighing in on HB 188, legislation that would enable the creation of Regional Fisheries Trusts in Alaska. AMCC supports HB 188, and the Regional Fisheries Trust concept, because it is a tool that will help ensure that the life history and age structure of Alaska fisheries remains balanced and diverse.
These regional trusts are highly controlled and will provide a path to local and independent ownership for Alaska residents; as a result, they will stem the outmigration of permits from our coastal communities. This is not an untested idea. Other fishing regions, including Maine, Massachusetts, Newfoundland and Norway have created similar tools that anchor access rights in fishing communities to bolster local economies and support new and rural fishermen in overcoming the sometimes impassable barriers to entry into commercial fisheries.
Regional Fisheries Trusts will not single handedly solve the problems affecting our fisheries and communities, but it is an important part of the suite of solutions that Alaska needs to be advancing. Trusts recreate the opportunity (e.g., diversity, history and structure) that is fundamental to the health of our fishing communities and help to recapture some of the benefits currently leaving Alaska in the form of rights, income and livelihood.
This post was inspired by recent conversations on a number of worthwhile texts, including Mountain in the Clouds by Bruce Brown, Poe et al. 2013, Pitcher et al. 2013 and several research articles authored by Courtney Carothers.