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Bristol Bay students cautiously positive about commercial fishing, survey finds


The age of state fishing permit holders rose to 50 in 2014. Last spring, researchers surveyed students in Bristol Bay and Kodiak in an effort to better understand the barriers to Alaska fisheries for young fishermen. This week, they are in the area to present their findings.

In the 1980s, the average age of a state fishing permit holder was 40 years old. That number was up to 50 by 2014. Rachel Donkersloot of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council surveyed youth in Bristol Bay and Kodiak last spring. She wanted to understand their perceptions of commercial fishing and barriers to entry. This week, she is back in the area to present her findings. On Monday, she spoke at the University of Alaska Bristol Bay Campus in Dillingham and at Dillingham High School.

For Donkersloot, the issue comes back to limited entry fishing.

“We’ve been talking about problems with limited entry pretty much since limited entry was created in the mid-1970s,” says Donkersloot. “Right now, I think we’re at a turning point. So we are seeing the average age of our permit holders across the state steadily rise, and right now we’ve got the bulk of permit holders approaching retirement age. At the same time, we’re seeing the out-migration of fishing rights from our communities. We know that there are financial barriers to entry for rural fishermen and young fishermen in particular.”

Her concern is that young, local fisherman will not be able to purchase these permits, so more permits will leave the community.

For the research project, Alaska’s Next Generation of Fishermen, Donkersloot and a team of five researchers surveyed high school students in 11 communities around Bristol Bay and in Kodiak about their perceptions and attitudes toward commercial fishing.

“We created and carried out a survey among 7th through 12th graders in all the schools. Some of the Dillingham findings surprised us, in addition to some of the other communities. But in Dillingham we saw a high percentage of students who had been encouraged to participate in fisheries that expected commercial fishing to be a part of their future.”

In Dillingham about half of students said they want to get involved in commercial fishing in the future. In the Bristol Bay Borough, that number is 41%. In Togiak, 78% of students would like to be involved. But the survey indicates that students in the Bristol Bay area perceive financial concerns as the main obstacle for young fishermen.

Shari O’Connor is a Dillingham High School Senior. She has grown up set netting with her family, and she attended the research presentation at the high school.

O’Connor says she sees herself commercial fishing for the foreseeable future. But, she also see the obstacles Donkersloot talks about.

“You know it’s so up in the air,” she says. “People who are going to college, if you want to be able to afford college, you might want a more realistic job, a more well-paying job that you can—you know how much you’re going to make versus it’s up in the air.”

For herself, she thinks commercial fishing will be a realistic career—eventually.

“Once I’m settled and I am more financially stable,” she says, “I think the risk is more doable rather than if I’m 25, and trying to pay for college, and get on my feet with my career, and trying to fish and trying to be overwhelmed with everything. It’s less doable than if I’m 40 and well established.”

Donkersloot is returning to communities where she conducted research this week to report these findings. She hopes they will be helpful in creating opportunities for young people to pursue careers in Alaska fisheries.

Contact the author: avery@kdlg.org.