Alaska's commercial fishing field shifting toward specialization, shrinking participation

"Beautiful evening on Kvichak Bay, gillnetter hard at work," Photo by Captain Kyle

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Across Alaska, the number of people fishing commercially is declining and the methods used and species targeted have become less diverse, a new study reveals.

The study looked at permits issued, harvest records, and existing literature, and took a case-study approach to examine the shifts in response to regulatory, environmental and economic factors over the last three decades.

"One of our hypotheses was that if fishermen have more diverse portfolios, then they would be able to better buffer against some of these pressures or unexpected disasters, like an oil spill," said Anne Beaudreau, an associate professor at the UAF College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. "I think one of the possible concerns is just the idea that if you put all of your eggs in one basket, then you have less ability to respond to the inevitable changes that are going to happen."

The study, conducted by a group of researchers with the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis looked at the commercial fisheries for Pacific herring in Prince William Sound, Pacific halibut in the Gulf of Alaska, salmon in Prince William Sound and Bristol Bay and the fisheries in the Exxon Valdez oil spill region.

While the study examines dozens of factors contributing to the changes in fishing participation, Beaudreau says the data shows that commercial fishermen are becoming more specialized.

For Pacific halibut, implementing individual fishing quotas was a key pressure that changed fisherman participation.

The study shows that halibut participation peaked in 1995 after individual quotas were put in place and gradually declined to the point where there were roughly half as many permit holders in 2015 than two decades before. As the number of people actively fishing for halibut decreased, the revenue permit holders earned continued to grow until peaking in 2007.

While the change to an individual fishing quota was the main pressure causing consolidation in the halibut fishery, Beaudreau says there are many other factors in other fisheries that have led to similar results.

"One of the things that we looked at in this paper is how there have been so many different factors that have affected commercial fisheries that it overlaps on top of each other, so it's not like one thing is happening at a time," Beaudreau said.

While the study examined trends in the salmon fisheries of Bristol Bay and Prince William Sound, Beaudreau said salmon are growing in importance across the state.

"They may be kind of a safety net when other species are less available, so I think in several of our case studies it really just highlights that salmon are increasingly important to commercial fisheries in our state," Beaudreau said.

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