Summit molds young fishermen into industry leaders

With oil and gas issues dominating Alaska politics, it can be easy to forget that as many as 20,000 people work in the state’s commercial fishing industry every year. That’s 6,000 to 7,000 more jobs than on the North Slope.

So as many fishermen near retirement age, the next generation is looking to step into leadership roles.

For the last four years, the Alaska Young Fishermen’s Summit has brought together some of the brightest young minds in the industry. Casey Kelly has more on the gathering, which took place in Juneau for the first time this year.


House members from left to right, Bryce Edgmon (D-Dillingham), Alan Austerman (R-Kodiak), Steve Thompson (R-Fairbanks), and Paul Seaton (R-Homer) meet with the Alaska Young Fishermen's Summit Wednesday in Juneau. (Photo by Casey Kelly/KTOO)

Fairbanks Republican Representative Steve Thompson asks if anyone else in the public would like to speak to the House Fisheries Committee.

A young man steps forward, fidgeting nervously in a blue sport coat: “Thank you, Mr. Chair. My name’s Timothy Nick and I come from Dillingham.”

Nick is here to ask the committee to pass a resolution pledging support for programs designed to boost the fishing industry.

The 21-year-old got his first crew share at 15, working for his family’s Bristol Bay setnet operation. But he never intended to make a career out of fishing.

“It was hard for me to watch my dad go through hardships and not have that much profit come out of fishing,” he testifies.

But when he was 18, Nick’s father gave him the family permit and bought another one. Today, the father and son operations are turning a small profit.

Nick says House Concurrent Resolution 18, which pledges continued support for education and loan programs for fishermen, shows that the state is committed to growing the industry.

“It would be great to have that pass, so that young fishermen like myself who almost didn’t go into fishing, [will] be able to keep the permits inside the state and amongst the local citizens who rely on fishing as a main source of income,” he says.

Sunny Rice is the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program Agent in Petersburg.

“We’re always really thrilled when we see one of our past participants writing a letter to the editor, or testifying before the Board of Fisheries,” Rice says.

Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program Agent Sunny Rice talks to the Young Fishermen's Summit Tuesday in Juneau. (Photo by Casey Kelly/KTOO)

Since 2009, the University of Alaska Fairbanks program has organized the annual Young Fishermen’s Summit to groom the next generation for leadership roles. Rice says that’s becoming more important as older fishermen get ready to retire – the so-called “Graying of the Fleet.”

“Not only do you have to know all that there is about gear and fishing and running your boat safely; but you need to have a head for business, you need to have some business training to help you balance your books,” says Rice. “You need to understand the markets for your product; and you need to know about the science and the management of your fisheries; and you need to get involved in the regulatory process.”

The two-day summit features panel discussions and seminars, not only with scientists and policy makers, but also bankers, insurance agents and economists with expertise in the fishing industry.

Timothy Nick says he got tips at the conference that should help his family’s fishing operation. While they only fish during the summer, Nick says the money has to last throughout the year.

“Being able to make that money stretch through the winter is one of the problems I deal with,” he says. “Also, understanding the insurance stuff, the tax information, I’ve always wondered about that through the years. But this is opening me up to those learning opportunities.”

In its first three years, the Young Fishermen’s Summit was held in Anchorage. Having it in Juneau this year gave participants the added benefit of interacting with lawmakers.

Lexi Fish – a 27-year-old troller and long liner from Sitka with the perfect name for a fisherman – says she’s always been interested in fisheries policy, and thinks the summit will give her more confidence to express herself.

“Probably my biggest priority is making the resource sustainable over the long-term,” Fish says. “It has to provide for people to keep their livelihoods commercial fishing.”

Rice says one of the goals of the conference is to help young fishermen find their voice.

“What they have to say is important,” she says. “Their individual stories make a difference and those decision makers want to hear those stories.”

After hearing from participants in the Young Fishermen’s Summit, the House Fisheries Committee unanimously passed House Concurrent Resolution 18. The non-binding measure appears to be headed for a vote on the House floor.

About 50 young fishermen take part in the summit each year. Several seafood companies help sponsor the event.