Fleet in flux:Young fishermen struggle to break into industry
A few years ago, just out of high school and headed to UAF to study engineering, Timothy Nick wasn't sure he wanted to make fishing his business. He'd been setnetting with his father Victor since he was 15, and saw first-hand the weight of responsibility required of an owner and operator.
"When I first started fishing, I thought about watching my dad struggle with the payments," he said. "See, we didn't take out any loans."
Timothy thought if he were to get into the family business, being young and without any credit to speak of, he'd be stuck in an endless struggle to make ends meet in an industry that didn't come with any guarantees. He was wary. And rightly so.
Victor Nick, Tim's father, bought his permit in 2003, after moving his family from the Kuskokwim River region (where he grew up fishing) to Dillingham. He worked hard, first as a crewman, until he could purchase a setnet operation off of Coffee Point in the Nushagak district.
"With the cost of living, it's pretty difficult to get into the fishing business," said Victor, who also works as an orthodox priest in Dillingham.
That exact sentiment is being echoed across the state — from legislative hearings to living rooms — as Alaska watches a cost-driven, so-called "graying of the fleet."
In the last decade, the average age of a commercial fishing captain has gone from just over 40 to almost 50 years old. Among a myriad of other factors, this reflects the difficulty that people of Timothy's generation have had breaking into an increasingly costly profession.
However, unlike many of his fellow twenty-somethings, Timothy did decide to dive into the fishing business and, with his father, tackled the changing industry with both hard work and strategy.
"After those first few years, I saw the operation stabilizing," Timothy said. When he decided to make a commitment, Victor gifted Timothy with his permit. The two then put that permit up as collateral on a loan through the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, allowing them to buy a second permit in Victor's name.
"Now I have my own operation alongside my dad," Timothy said. "We each have (a permit) and fish side-by-side."
Timothy took advantage of another relatively new resource this January when he attended the Young Fishermen's Summit. Held in Juneau by the Marine Advisory Program, the summit seeks to bolster the industry's younger generation with knowledge of fisheries politics, science, business and technology.
"I thought that the information could help me become a better fisherman," Timothy said. "There were questions I didn't know how to ask, and the summit answered a lot of those."
The Nicks' story isn't exactly the norm, but they do showcase the increasing need for ingenuity and business sense when approaching a future in fisheries.
Not your grandfather's fishery
In the last two weeks, the Alaska State House unanimously passed two initiatives aimed at enabling Alaska's residents to secure a stronger foothold in seafood industry occupations.
The first initiative, HB 261, moved the maximum loan amount for permit buyers from $100,000 to $200,000, reflecting a more realistic view of today's permit costs.
The second, HCR 18, looks to offset the graying of the fleet by partnering with the University of Alaska in evaluating and improving fisheries-related programs around the state.
Lawmakers, educators and academics across Alaska are rallying around this broad, somewhat gray-area topic, and it's clear that we're entering a new age for fishing.
That being said, today's 40- to 50-year-olds are certainly not the first generation of Alaska fishermen to age, begging the question, what's different about this "graying?"
"The fishing industry has been changing in a fundamental way," said Gunnar Knapp, economics professor at UAA's Institute of Social and Economic Research. "It costs more money to be involved in fishing than it used to, in the good old days, whatever those were."
For one, the adoption of limited entry systems in the mid-70s did exactly what it was meant to do — limit the number of harvesters, thus making the privilege of fishing a financial competition. This in turn affects the actual purpose, managing fisheries for resource sustainability. Yes, there are good years and bad, with some disasters and some banner years thrown in, but what you end up with is a healthy fishery, populated by older captains who've found career stability.
"Here's the irony," said Knapp. "Of course we want our fisheries to be profitable. And we are really pleased that they are more profitable now than they used to be. But the more profitable they are, the more those permits are worth, and the other costs increase."
Soon, bigger boats with more sophisticated technology become mainstream, and the cost of being competitive ramps up a little more with flush decks for efficiency, state of the art hydraulics and refrigeration systems, and modern electronics. Add on ever-bulging fuel prices, the cost of regular maintenance and a reliable crew and it's no wonder cost of entry into a commercial fishery in Alaska is ringing up at around $350,000.
This isn't a business you start on a whim. And it's not one many enter on a beginner budget.
Education meets industry
But all this competition isn't necessarily a bad thing, said Marine Advisory Program agent Torie Baker.
"This is a dynamic time, but it reflects a pretty healthy industry," she said. "It's professionalized the fleets."
While this professionalizing has an initial crippling effect on young entrepreneurs, Baker said state programs and funding sources are starting to respond to the circumstance with opportunities for those who are so inclined to take advantage.
The program supported by HCR 18, UA's Fisheries, Seafood, and Maritime Initiative, is a comprehensive look at not only the status of current programs but the needs of the "wet trades," Baker said. By evaluating what these industries need from a workforce — be it business savvy fishermen, seafood market experts, licensed pilots, etc. — programs across the state can respond in kind. That's the goal, at least. It's early yet and the industry is still shifting, as multi-billion dollar businesses tend to do.
However some early examples, like 21-year-old Timothy Nick, show that collecting your resources and going to the right places for aid and education can pay off.
There's no place like home
In the mean time, younger generations in an investment holding pattern aren't the only dynamic angle to this graying of the fleet phenomenon. As has been the trend in its 150-year history, more and more nonresidents own and operate within the Alaskan commercial fisheries.
After all, if someone in Alaska doesn't have the money to scoop up a $160,000 drift permit on any given day, someone in Washington surely does.
Nonresidents hold more than 25 percent of Alaska's commercial permits, and that number is on the rise.
"Every time a permit leaves the state or the region, with it tend to go crew jobs, and any (other) income that comes in," Knapp said. "When those crew jobs go, the community becomes less of a fishing community and loses its connection to it."
To Victor Nick, keeping permit ownership local provides the security he believes his community needs to carry them through the rest of the year.
"I find that having a permit helps me get the things I need in the village," Nick said. "If permits are localized, a lot of people will be helped."
Whether it's snowmachine parts or a loan to tide one over through winter, he said the collateral of a permit gives families the financial edge they need to remain stable.
The same can be said for the rest of Alaska.