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Graying of the Fleet in Alaska's Fisheries: Defining the Problem and Assessing Alternatives


Courtney Carothers Courtney CarothersSchool of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences
University of Alaska Fairbanks
Rachel Donkersloot Rachel Donkersloot
Alaska Marine Conservation Council
Paula Cullenberg Paula CullenbergAlaska Sea Grant College Program
University of Alaska Fairbanks



The “graying of the fleet” encompasses concerns for fisheries policy makers, researchers, coastal communities, and the state of Alaska. Chief among these is how the succession of limited access permits and catch-share privileges will further exacerbate the exodus of valuable fishing privileges and seafood business opportunities from Alaska’s fishing communities.

This ethnographic, mixed-methods research will focus on the perceived and experienced barriers to entry and upward mobility within fisheries among youth and young fishery participants in Bristol Bay and the Kodiak archipelago. Researchers will assess how and why fishing communities and demographic groups in these regions are differentially impacted by problems arising from the graying of the fleet. One focus will be community and demographic differences in barriers to entry.

Project updates and discussion can be found on the Alaska's Next Generation of Fishermen Study Facebook page and Alaska's Next Generation of Fishermen website.

Project news can be found in the 2016 stories "Aging workforce poses challenge to Alaska fishing's future”, and “Bristol Bay students cautiously positive about commercial fishing, survey finds” from KDLG.


The issue

The "graying of the fleet" is a pressing concern for Alaska and its coastal communities. Researchers seek to better understand the problem and to assess and develop mechanisms to help address it.

To understand what factors facilitate and constrain local youth participation in fisheries in rural Alaska communities, this research project approaches the graying of the fleet as a multi-dimensional problem. To further understand the graying of the fleet, researchers will focus on the ways in which young people’s attitudes and pathways toward permit ownership are supported and constrained by local dynamics, including economic and non-economic resources and barriers. Researchers will use ethnographic, interview, and survey data to examine how young people’s interest and participation in fisheries compares to other lifestyle choices and migration, education, and professional and career goals.

Why is this an Alaska Sea Grant project?

This project addresses the Alaska Sea Grant research themes of (1) impacts on and strategies for coastal communities adapting to change and (2) improvements to the economic and sociocultural sustainability of Alaska coastal communities. Youth engagement in careers that enable them to remain in, or return to, their rural coastal communities is key to the future sustainability of communities under threat from depopulation, school closures, and lack of employment opportunities.

How will researchers conduct their study?

This study uses a mixed-methods ethnographic approach including key informant and semi-structured interviews, a survey, and a literature review and compilation of data to address the following questions:

  1. What are the perceived and experienced barriers to entry into fisheries, and upward mobility, for local youth and young fishery participants in the Bristol Bay and Kodiak archipelago regions of Alaska? How do these barriers differ by geographic, demographic, and sociocultural variables?
  2. What geographic, economic, social, and cultural factors influence young people’s attitudes toward and level of participation in fisheries? What are models of successful pathways to establishing ownership-level fishing careers among young residents?
  3. What policy responses may address the graying of the fleet, including alternative licensing systems and other novel approaches implemented in Alaska and other regions, and how might we best structure alternative models in Alaska?

Research collaborators

Alaska Marine Conservation Council
North Pacific Research Board


Research impacts

Alaska Sea Grant researchers identify factors deterring young people from entering Alaska commercial fishing industry

Recap: Alaska Sea Grant–funded researchers confirmed several social, economic, and cultural variables that deter young fishermen from entering the Alaska commercial fishing industry, and presented the results locally, statewide, and internationally; constructive potential pathways and policy responses can be developed based on the findings.

Relevance: The average age of a commercial fisherman in Alaska is increasing indicating that fewer young people enter the industry. Decline in participation by Alaskans could affect long-term sustainability of the industry locally and statewide.

Response: Alaska Sea Grant–funded researchers studied factors contributing to the graying of the fleet in the Kodiak archipelago and Bristol Bay. They conducted interviews and surveys to learn about young Alaskans’ perspectives on joining the commercial fishing industry. Questions addressed barriers to entry and upward mobility, social and cultural factors that affect whether young people want to go into fishing, education goals, and challenges for each community.

Results: Researchers found that a number of social, economic, and cultural variables deter young fishermen from getting involved in the Alaska commercial fishing industry. First, many young fishermen cannot afford the high cost of getting a permit and fishing equipment. Additionally, some families are not spending as much time fishing together, so the drive to become a fisherman might be weaker in young people who did not grow up spending time on a boat. Finally, increasing social problems, like drug use and difficult family situations, may deter young people from staying in their local communities after they grow up. The researchers have presented 15 talks on project results to fishing communities, the public, and at professional meetings. The results can be used in developing models of successful pathways to ownership-level participation in Alaska commercial fisheries, and in identifying policy responses and recommendations.

Research outcomes

Donkersloot, R., and C. Carothers. 2016. The graying of the Alaskan fishing fleet. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development 58:3:30-42. https://doi.org/10.1080/00139157.2016.1162011