Alaska Sea Grant in the News

Survey: State's salmon fishermen optimistic about industry's future

Many seek training to stay competitive

Date: 10/11/2004
Contact: Paula Cullenberg, Leader, Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program, Coastal Development Specialist, University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, 907-274-9691 ext. 112, anpjc@uaa.alaska.edu
Paula Cullenberg faculty profile
NR: SG-2004/NR219

Related Web sites
2004 TAA Workshop Questionnaire Results


ANCHORAGE, Alaska—Despite low prices and lost markets for some of the state's salmon catch, most Alaska commercial salmon fishermen remain positive about their industry's future, according to an informal university survey of more than 2,000 fishermen across the state.

The survey was conducted by the Marine Advisory Program (MAP), the outreach program of the Alaska Sea Grant College Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences.

"About 52 percent of the fishermen we surveyed said they had no plans to leave the industry, and in fact they were looking for ways to stay competitive," said Paula Cullenberg, MAP leader. "They expressed a desire for more training in things like vessel maintenance, marketing, and value-added processing. This tells me they are thinking of ways to stay in the industry, not ways to get out of it."

Another 21 percent of salmon fishermen said they would continue fishing for up to five years, while 20 percent indicated they would stay in commercial fishing for up to ten years. The number of fishermen saying they would keep fishing for the rest of their lives was highest in Bristol Bay and the Yukon at 62 percent, and lowest on the Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island at 45 percent.

The survey was conducted over several months this past winter with thousands of salmon fishermen who attended 257 technical workshops across the state. The workshops were aimed at helping fishermen develop ways to stay competitive in their fishing businesses and were a required step toward qualifying for federally funded financial aid, training, and education benefits under the United States Department of Agriculture's Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program.

More than 4,300 fishermen attended the workshops and 2,343 fishermen completed the survey, which was meant primarily to help MAP assess the quality of its workshops and to guide the program as it develops new ways to help Alaska fishermen and the state's coastal communities. Yet the survey results offer a glimpse into an industry that has had to cope with dramatic losses in markets and record low prices for some salmon species in recent years. Among the highlights:

• Salmon fishermen said they were looking for ways to remain competitive. Fifty-five percent said direct seafood marketing was the number-one topic they wanted to learn more about. This was followed by increasing vessel efficiency (43 percent), seafood quality and processing training (40 percent), and regional salmon marketing (39 percent)

• Across the state, commercial fishing plays an important part in fishermen's annual income. On average, the state's commercial fishermen look to fishing for 69 percent of their annual income. Reliance on commercial fishing was highest in Kodiak, Southeast, and Prince William Sound, where it accounted for about 80 percent of their income. Dependence on fishing was lowest along the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers at 38 percent and 31 percent respectively. These low numbers are likely the result of limited fishing opportunities due to poor salmon returns and weak herring markets in recent years.

• Alaska's salmon fishermen take other jobs. Statewide, about 42 percent of salmon fishermen said they work other jobs when not fishing. That figure rises to 54 percent among Kenai fishermen, and drops to 34 percent for fishermen from Kodiak, the Aleutians, and the Kuskokwim Delta.

• When not fishing for salmon, nearly a quarter of respondents could be found fishing for halibut, followed by herring (17 percent), crab (11 percent), cod (10 percent), and sablefish (8 percent).

• Alaska commercial salmon fishermen are aging, and few new fishermen are waiting in the wings to fill their ranks. Fully 67 percent of the state's commercial salmon fishermen who completed the survey were between 30 and 60 years of age. Just 14 percent were between the ages of 20 to 30, and only 8 percent were under age 20.

• With age comes experience. Across the state, commercial salmon fishermen have been plying their trade for an average of 26 years. Anchorage fishermen were the most experienced, with an average of 34 years under their belt, while fishermen along the Kuskokwim and Yukon Rivers had the least, with an average of about 21 years in the industry.

• Nearly half of all respondents employed family members in their fishing business. The number was highest along the Yukon, where 66 percent of fishermen hired family members. The number was lowest, 40 percent, in Kodiak and the Aleutians.

• Computer usage among respondents was relatively high, with 42 percent of fishermen using a computer for such things as marine navigation and business management. Use of computers was highest among fishermen in Southeast (57 percent), Kenai Peninsula (55 percent), Kodiak/Aleutian Islands (53 percent), Prince William Sound (48 percent), and Anchorage (45 percent). Fishermen in Bristol Bay (15 percent), and along the Yukon River (5 percent) and Kuskokwim River (4 percent) used computers the least.

The survey also asked fishermen how they obtain information important to operating their business. Overall, about 49 percent said they use the Internet. But in parts of Alaska, such as Kodiak, Anchorage, Southeast Alaska and the Kenai Peninsula, Internet usage approached 60 percent. Fishermen in northwest Alaska, Bristol Bay, and western Alaska used the Internet least.

"I think this reflects their access to the Internet, which is not as great and is more expensive in rural areas of the state," said Torie Baker, MAP agent based in Cordova who coordinated the TAA workshops. "In these areas, fishermen rely on the radio, television and newspapers for news and information. And in remote Alaska, direct mail is a good way to get information quickly to fishermen."

Baker said that distance delivery technology is also seen as important to rural Alaska communities. She also said the presence of MAP agents in many coastal communities ranked high among survey respondents.

The USDA announced recently that TAA benefits will again be available to Alaska salmon harvesters and crew. A 90-day sign-up period begins in mid-October and will be run by the Alaska Farm Service Agency. Beginning in January 2005, the Marine Advisory Program will conduct another round of statewide technical workshops for new applicants. Fishermen who have already taken a TAA workshop will not be required to repeat the training.

NOTE: Although the number of respondents was quite large, none of the data should be considered a reflection of the entire salmon harvesting sector. Summary data are representative of fishermen applying for a specific assistance program, and therefore exclusive of other salmon harvesters. Nonetheless, respondents are currently participating in the fisheries and represent a broad geographic distribution. Despite the sampling constraints, the data provide a qualified glimpse into current attitudes, skills, and needs of the salmon harvesting sector.


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