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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.

A 2017 press release highlights the report “Turning the Tide” which offers solutions to Alaska’s “graying of the fleet” problem and loss of access by rural communities to the state's fishing industry.

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


What researchers learned

The “graying of the fleet” and loss of local access to fisheries threatens the economic and cultural lifeblood of Alaska’s fishing communities. The average age of fishermen in Alaska’s fisheries has increased by 10 years over the past generation, and overall rural communities have lost 30% of their local permit holders. This ethnographic, mixed-methods study in Bristol Bay and Kodiak suggests that these shifts in access relate primarily to the privatization of fisheries access that has resulted in increased financial capital and risk needed to enter into fisheries. Other financial challenges include: mixing fishing with other, often times limited, local jobs; lack of stable markets increasing risk; and lack of experience managing debt and small businesses. Rural youth identified a host of social barriers to accessing fishing, including: lack of exposure to commercial fishing; lack of experience, knowledge, and family connections to fishing; discouragement from pursuing fishing as a career; and substance abuse and related problems in communities. Our youth survey results indicate that positive attitudes about fishing were best predicted by student experience in the commercial fishing industry, expectations about future fishing engagement, and the importance of family subsistence fishing. Our review of policy solutions worldwide to address the graying of the fleet and the loss of rural fisheries access generated a set of recommendations for policy makers and resource managers, including developing or enhancing: non-markets forms of access, youth access, rural community access, local infrastructure, and a statewide task force on policy solutions to improve fisheries access.

Research impacts

Alaska Sea Grant research spurs legislation and produces recommendations to improve commercial fisheries access in Alaska

Recap: Through interviews and surveys conducted in multiple Alaska communities, Alaska Sea Grant–funded researchers identified barriers confronting new entrants into commercial fisheries, published recommendations to help promote access to the fisheries, and spurred legislation.

Relevance: Commercial fishing is an important part of the Alaska economy but has become increasingly difficult and costly to enter for young residents of fishing communities. The trend of increasing age of permit holders in Alaska’s commercial fisheries has caused concern among state lawmakers, industry members, and coastal communities. Assessing and understanding why there has been a decline in younger Alaskans’ entrance into the fishing industry is essential to determine how to reverse the trend.

Response: Alaska Sea Grant–funded researchers conducted surveys and interviews with members of several coastal Alaska communities. The data collected were used to determine existing barriers for entering commercial fishing, how young community members felt about the fishing industry as a career, and ways for new entrants to have a successful fishing career.

Results: Survey and interview data revealed several factors that inhibit access to fisheries, particularly to young community residents. The most substantial barrier is the high cost of a permit and fishing equipment. Other barriers include a decrease in family members fishing together, which leads to less interest in the industry, as well as social issues such as problems at home and drug use. Researchers published a report with recommendations geared at making the fishing industry more accessible to young community members and encouraging them to do so. In addition, a bill was introduced to the Alaska Legislature to create regional fisheries trusts in some state fisheries. The trust would lease permits to local residents who may be deterred by the high price of entry.

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

In an effort to better support and educate the next generation of Alaskan fishermen, a series of Public Service Announcements (PSAs) were produced and aired on coastal radio stations in August 2017. These can be found on the Alaska’s Next Generation of Fishermen Study Facebook page

Cullenberg, P., R. Donkersloot, C. Carothers, J. Coleman, and D. Ringer. 2017. Turning the tide: How can Alaska address the graying of the fleet and loss of rural fisheries access? Alaska Marine Conservation Council and Alaska Sea Grant, University of Alaska Fairbanks, M-215, Anchorage. 42 pp. http://fishermen.alaska.edu/turning-the-tide

Cullenberg, P., ed. 2016. Fisheries Access for Alaska—Charting the Future: Workshop Proceedings. Alaska Sea Grant, University of Alaska Fairbanks, AK-SG-16-02, Fairbanks. http://doi.org/10.4027/faacfwp.2016

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

Ringer, D.J. 2016. For generations to come: Exploring local fisheries access and community viability in the Kodiak Archipelago. Master’s thesis, University of Alaska Fairbanks, SGT-16-02, 182 pp. http://hdl.handle.net/11122/7221