Fish 'til You Die: Fishermen plan for future in unpredictable industry

Posted: Monday, June 09, 2008

A commercial fisherman's boat is his retirement package.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

That is the tradition, fishermen say. And it still holds, for they all have invested deeply into boats, gear, permits and quotas.

"Selling out is part of the plan," said John Etheridge, 52.

But it is not the whole plan. Retirement and health care costs are rising to levels that are unbearable for many. Fishermen such as Etheridge say they rely on other jobs or savvy investing to make sure they'll still be in sardines once they stop fishing.

A gambler gets smart

Planning for health care or retirement did not come instinctively to Juneau fisherman Chris Knight.

Now 37, he owns his boat, has a health plan and invests money for his retirement.

But like many young fishermen, Knight was uninsured for years - at least for the seven months a year he wasn't working as a legislative staffer.

"You're eating salmon a lot of the time. You exercise a lot. You don't think you really are going to get sick," Knight said.

"I have two deck hands, and neither of them has a lick of insurance," Etheridge said.

"In your 20s, 30s and 40s, you're never going to get sick," said Charlie Polk, a retired fisherman in his 60s who gambled some himself. "It's when you get up to your 50s and say, 'Hey, wait a minute, now.' But then it's too damn late."

For Knight, the same went for retirement. Who thinks about that in your 20s and 30s?

Plus Knight, like all fishermen, considered the money he poured into his boat a reinvestment in the fishing operation. He did that for a few years before he realized he could do it pretty much until he had no money left. Some kind of long-term planning was in order.

In fishing, nobody tells you how to do that.

"Nobody told me to start an IRA," Knight said. "I heard a skipper talking about his mutual funds, and it made me pick up a magazine and figure it out."

He suspects, though, that he's in the minority among fishermen his age.

Are fishermen underinsured?

Anecdotally, fishermen talk about each other as risk-takers who don't plan much for the long term. But data is hard to find.

About 16 percent of the nation was uninsured in 2006. The number was 14 percent among respondents to a United Fishermen of Alaska survey last year.

UFA spokesman Mark Vinsel says that number is probably low. People who pay their annual UFA dues are, he considers, less likely to be scrimping on health care. Many live in areas with little if any medical care, even if insured.

Even without accounting for the cost of travel, health care costs in Alaska are some of the highest in the country, according to a University of Alaska 2006 report.

Fishermen who insure themselves have experienced rising prices, both with the national trend and as they age.

Vinsel, while looking at online insurance quotes, found that fishermen have "very few choices, while other U.S. locations generate scores or hundreds of providers and plans," he wrote in a fall 2007 report. That suggests little competitive incentive to keep prices low.

Etheridge said he jumped plans when one eventually rose fivefold, and he is still looking at $1,000 a month for health care.

"If you don't have it, you've got to keep working just the same," he said.

They don't just fish

Part of making a living these days - and enough to pay for your health care - is fishing lots of fisheries.

"Back in the old days, you'd be just a troller, or a gillnetter, or a long-liner. But you wouldn't be a troller-gillnetter-long-liner. Now you need to fish all year round," Polk said.

Out of the water, many fund their retirement or health care through a steady job on the beach.

"A lot of gillnetters are ex-teachers," said Kathy Hansen, fisherman and director of the Southeast Alaska Fishermen's Alliance.

Take for example Roger Walling, who has caught fish for 45 years and taught school for 25.

"You don't really have a retirement out of fishing," he said.

State economists, in the November 2007 "Alaska's Fishermen: They Don't Just Fish," reported that 52 percent of the state's roughly 7,000 active fishermen had some wage or salary job other than fishing. That didn't include people with federal jobs, who aren't counted for state unemployment purposes.

Forty-five percent of active permit holders, also known as fishermen who fish, reported some other wage or salary job. Sixty percent of crew had other jobs.

Seeking spouse with steady job

Fishermen around here often finance their benefits by marrying well.

Juneau especially has a concentration of government jobs that provide health care and retirement for many a fishing spouse of a bureaucrat, fishermen say.

Take, for example, Jev Shelton of Juneau, 66, now in his 49th year of fishing. He's a long-term planner, the sort of man who began saving for his children's college educations when they were tiny.

He wouldn't go so far as to say his wife subsidized the fishing. The business has been good to him, he said. But the government benefits are an important part of his family's financial planning, too.

"It certainly makes it easier," he said.

Who will help them sell out?

In the last several years, people have started to refer to and worry about a graying fleet.

The average age of Alaska fishermen was 48 in 2006, up from 41 two decades ago, according to a 2006 report from the state Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission. In Southeast Alaska, fishermen for some gear types averaged in the mid-50s.

Not everyone is gray, according to state economists, who noted a recent influx of younger fishermen in a 2007 report. This is supported by some older fishermen who say the younger generation is starting to show up to testify at Board of Fish or other fishery management meetings.

High entry costs are an often-cited obstacle. Vinsel said he worries the cost of health care will be just one more discouraging factor in renewing the fleet.

And that matters to fishermen whose planned retirement package consists of boat, gear, permits and quotas.

"What we're hoping to do is sell out," Etheridge said. "But who's going to buy it?"

Eggs in lots of baskets

Good investments help offset such risks.

"I know a lot of fishermen, and they do all kinds of investments," said Brigitta Windisch-Cole, a state economist.

That is partly how Polk eked it out.

Polk, who fished out of Juneau for 47 years, said he and his wife never had the pillow of bureaucracy's medical benefits. His health care cost him $1,500 a month when he still fished, he said.

He hit 65 and became eligible for Medicare, but his medicines, even now, cost nearly $600 a month.

Asked whether he thought about retirement much as a younger man, he said no.

Yet he managed to buy a four-plex and make some investments. With those and the government benefits, he considers he's doing all right.

"I'm OK, but I know a lot of people aren't," he said.

Or fish till you die

There is always the strategy of just not retiring, which is not uncommon among a bunch of people who, mostly, fish because they love to do it.

Roger Walling, 65, keeps saying he'll retire, but he's going out again this year.

"If you sit on the beach, you think, 'God, I could be catching salmon or halibut right now. I know where they are.' It's hard to give that up," Walling said. "You just hire more crew and sit in the cabin more."

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