As Alaska's Fishing Fleet Ages, Newcomers Find the Price of Entry High
PETERSBURG, Alaska For what it's going to cost Justin Peeler to elbow his way into Southeast Alaska's fishing fleet, he could have gone to Harvard Medical School -- twice.
The 26-year-old has been a crewman in the Petersburg fleet for 15 years, starting as a kid fishing with his father. He now plans to buy his own salmon seiner, and figures the cost of a 56-foot boat, along with gear and permits, will be $500,000.
"The amount of money that I'm borrowing, if I pencil it all out, I barely make it," Peeler said. "I've bet everything on it."
The costs are steep for the next generation of fishermen who are trying to break into the business. Besides buying a good boat and gear, they must pay top dollar for the right to fish in a crowded Alaska industry with limited entry permits and individual fishing quotas.
That's something the last generation of Alaska fishermen, who got their start when the state's waters were still mostly open to all, didn't have to deal with.
It's not just a problem for the young fishermen. Here in this coastal town of 3,100, where fishing is still the major economic driver, it could turn into a problem for everybody.
In Petersburg, most commercial fishermen are ages 40 through 60, and people are starting to ask about the future of the fleet as graying fishermen look to pass on their nets in the next 10 or 15 years.
The concern is that there won't be enough younger fishermen who can afford to take over, said Sunny Rice, an agent with the Marine Advisory Program, part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences.
More and more Alaska fisheries have been limited to permit holders since the state constitution was changed in 1972 to protect popular species such as salmon from being overfished. Some 68 state fisheries are now limited entry, meaning commercial fishermen must pay one-time entry permits and annual fees to fish them.
The federal government, which has individual fishing quotas, gives a commercial fisherman the rights to a percentage of the year's catch of halibut or sablefish in federal waters off Alaska's coast. That program is meant to end a mad rush to fish those species that in the past would end a season in days.
But the cost of entry permits and quota shares are staggering for a newcomer. They vary by fishery but range from tens of thousands of dollars to hundreds of thousands -- and they are rising as the market price of the catch rebounds from a long slump.
Petersburg fisherman Kurt Wohlhueter, 50, said he was recently looking at purchasing a 20,000-pound halibut quota -- at a cost between $380,000 and $400,000.
"There's really no room right now for a young man to buy into that fishery because the profit margin isn't wide enough, not with fuel costs, not with the fickle price fluctuations," he said. "I can't imagine a young man trying to buy a boat, trying to buy a home, trying to support a family."
Some fishermen say a newcomer can buy a smaller boat or start in less expensive fisheries, then work his way up. One state program will loan up to $300,000 to Alaska residents at low interest rates for quota shares, with repayment over 15 years. The program is for fishermen who can't get loans elsewhere, including young fishermen, said state Division of Investments Director Greg Winegar.
But Peeler plans to stay away from quota fisheries such as halibut and sablefish for now. They're just too expensive. He already has a salmon permit, which set him back $42,000.
To make a living while his debt looms, he's going to have to hustle. He plans to fish for salmon, then lease his boat and work as a crewman the rest of the year in exchange for a share of the profits.
"That will help me make it," he said. "That will hopefully (let) me be able to live in Petersburg."
Source: Associated Press