Young commercial fishermen face steep hurdles in Alaska

Posted: Monday, January 29, 2007

ANCHORAGE - Lindsey Bloom is so enthused about her budding career as a commercial fisherman that she's got the "Made in Alaska" emblem and two leaping sockeye salmon tattooed on the small of her back.

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Raleigh Eager, who found himself living in a tent on Kodiak Island after a friend back home in New York City told him he could get rich fishing in Alaska, is hoping to diversify his small cod-fishing operation - if he can find the dollars to do it.

Mike Jones, who abandoned a job fishing for crab on the perilous Bering Sea after the once-lucrative paychecks dried up, now is a deckhand on a halibut boat and hopes to captain his own vessel someday.

The trio represents the reinforcements for an old Alaska industry, a new generation looking to take the wheel from the graybeards who now dominate the tough trade of commercial fishing.

The transition won't be easy, say industry players and advisers. With more than a 100-year heritage in Alaska, commercial fishing is a profession that used to be fairly wide open and free of regulation.

Today, the open range of the sea is increasingly fenced, regulations are dense and new players need tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy government permits or fishing rights, known as quotas, to catch salmon, herring, halibut, sablefish, crab and other species. Then there's the cost of modern fishing boats, gear, diesel fuel and bait.

The costs have many young fishermen worried. And veteran fishermen - some of whom got their fishing permits and quotas for free as original recipients - likewise fret about whether anyone will be able to afford to buy them out once they retire.

According to state fishery regulators and others, the graying of the fleet is advancing significantly. The average age of people holding state permits to catch salmon and other types of fish in 2005 was 48, up from 41 two decades earlier. People holding federal permits and lucrative individual fishing quotas, or IFQs, for halibut and sablefish also are pushing toward retirement age, industry observers say.

The new generation of fishermen just coming into the business face major hurdles, and not just financially, said Arne Fuglvog, a former commercial fisherman from Petersburg who last year went to Washington, D.C., as an aide to U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

"You've got to be an accountant, a lawyer and a businessman to be a fisherman these days. And for good measure, you gotta be a biologist too," he said.

But a two-day seminar last week at Anchorage's Hotel Captain Cook attracted plenty of up-and-comers.

Nearly 70 people, nearly all under the age of 40, took part in the Alaska Young Fishermen's Summit.

The seminar was a crash course on the business, the rules and the feisty politics of Alaska's commercial fishing industry, which employs thousands of people and produces more than half the U.S. seafood catch.

Bloom is a small-statured 26-year-old from Juneau who nets salmon at Bristol Bay. She owns her own permit and captains her own boat, the 32-foot Erika Leigh. Her dad is a longtime commercial fisherman.

For Bloom, the fishing life is the best kind of life, offering the freedom of working for yourself on the open water plus regular shots of adrenaline.

Once, she said, fishing had just begun in the bay's notoriously combative Egegik district when her boat motor quit. All around, boats had nets in the water catching lucrative sockeye while she sat with air in the fuel system. But not for long.

"I had no idea I could bleed my valves, get my engine running and get back fishing," she said. "It's just so empowering. You don't have a choice. You just suck it up."

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