Act signed to aid young fishermen

  • An act sponsored by Rep. Don Young to aid entry to fisheries for young people was signed into law on Jan. 5 after years of work by stakeholders. (Photo/Molly Dischner/For the Journal)

After years of refinement and hearings in Congress, the Young Fishermen’s Development Act was finally signed into law on Jan. 5.

The act lays out funding and a structure for workforce development and education programs for young commercial fishermen across the country. Rep. Don Young, the original sponsor of the House version of the bill, noted that young fishermen face more obstacles than in the past, including new barriers to entry, limited training opportunities and a global pandemic.

The bill directs the National Sea Grant Office within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to create a matching grant program specifically for training, education, outreach and technical assistance for young fishermen. Recipients would have to be collaborative state, Tribal, local, or regionally based networks or public-private partnerships, according to the bill. The grants won’t be able to be used for purchasing licenses, permits, quota or any other harvesting rights.

“Our legislation is about supporting the livelihoods of fishing communities across the nation by making the next generation aware of the opportunities available in the commercial fishing industry,” Young said in a press release.

“This is a tremendous victory, but my work on behalf of our fishing fleet is not done. The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated our fishermen, processors, and countless others who depend on a thriving seafood industry. Now that the 117th Congress has begun, I want our fishermen to know that I will continue fighting for a safe and prosperous future for this vital sector.”

In 2016, Alaska’s average commercial fisherman was older than 50, and rural resident permit holdings had fallen by more than 30 percent. That movement away from locally owned fisheries and the aging of the fishing fleet drew concern from groups like Alaska Sea Grant and the Alaska Marine Conservation Network, prompting the groups to form committees on policy reform to help bring more young people into the fishery.

High on their list of concerns was the cost of entering limited-entry fisheries like salmon or halibut, where permits or individual fishing quota, or IFQ, are expensive, in addition to boats and equipment.

A report published by a group of fisheries policy researchers in 2017 provided a list of recommendations to help reverse these trends. The first three recommendations all had to do with finding nonmarket-based solutions to facilitate new entry into the fisheries, such as community trusts that could hold permits or establishing apprenticeship programs.

The bill does allow the grants to be used for “mentoring, apprenticeships, or internships,” but the other uses are primarily education in topics like vessel and engine care, maintenance and repair, sustainable fishing practices, business practices and direct marketing. Grants are for up to three years and $200,000 each. The bill indicates appropriations to begin in fiscal year 2022.

The bill’s signing was overshadowed by the chaos of the invasion of Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, but the act was hailed by the Alaska commercial fishing fleet as a step in the right direction to reverse the aging of the average fisherman in the state, known as “the graying of the fleet.” While commercial fishing crews remain relatively young compared to the overall population, permit holders and vessel operators are among the older demographic, and younger fishermen are not moving into the fleet as permit and quota holders to replace them.

The Marine Fish Conservation Network, a national sustainable fishing advocacy group, praised the passage of the bill as a step in the right direction for young fishermen. Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association and co-chair of the Marine Fish Conservation Network’s Policy Council, said there is plenty of other work to do to help young fishermen, but the Young Fishermen’s Development Act is a win.

“It’s a piece of what needs to be done, not all of it,” she said. “It’s not an end-all-be-all, but it is an important step.”

Industry group the Fishing Communities Coalition — of which ALFA is one member — essentially wrote drafts for the act, Behnken said. Initially, there was interest in including help for fishermen seeking to buy into fisheries through quota or permits, but quickly found that there was little support for that among industry or in Congress. In the interest of moving the bill forward, the provisions were dropped. But training is an important need, too, she said.

The grants will help organizations cover costs for trainings that may help aspiring fishermen work their way into the industry, such as workshops on regulations and vessel repair and maintenance, Behnken said. In fisheries, which are naturally subject to the forces of nature, the establishment of training programs and a sort of ladder to climb may help offer some stability, she said.

As to helping with the finances of getting into the industry, Behnken said the industry is looking to sources outside the federal government to help. The Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust, a Sitka-based organization, runs an deckhand apprenticeship program to connect interested young fishermen with a small-boat skipper to introduce them to the industry.

The program helps teach the apprentices how to approach the job and how to avoid certain pitfalls, such as negotiating a contract before getting aboard and how to negotiate all the gear required in Alaska’s commercial fisheries.

The trust also runs a Local Fish Fund, which helps finance some of the cost of a down payment for quota, which is notoriously expensive. Since launching in 2019, the fund has helped provide $1.5 million in loans. Since the introduction of limited entry fisheries, permits have gradually been siphoned away from rural and local fishermen, impacting communities. Behnken said the goal of efforts like the Local Fish Fund is to help reverse some of that movement.

“The escalating cost of entry has really marginalized rural communities, native communities—anybody with limited access to capital,” she said.

The text of the act does not give a specific timeline for the development of the program or the first distribution of grants. Young’s office did not return a request for an interview.

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

01/13/2021 - 9:57am