Study reveals changes in Commercial Fisheries over three decades

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FAIRBANKS, Alaska - As Alaska gears up for the upcoming fishing season, a new study “reels” in some changes that the fishing industry has encountered over the years.

Anne Beaudreau is an associate professor of fisheries, at University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences based out of Juneau.

She and other researchers have conducted a study compiling 30 years of commercial fisheries catch and revenue data to find how participation in fisheries in Alaska have decreased, and specialization has increased.

“So this is a study that came out of a working group that was funded by ‘NCEAS’ (National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis) and we were able to compile about 30 years of commercial fisheries catch and revenue data,” said Beaudreau

Beaudreau said they are interested in seeing how participation in fisheries have changed over time. Collecting data on the number of people that are actively commercially fishing, and also what some the major fishing portfolios have looked like over time. Bringing together a combination of species fishermen are fishing, and what combination permits are they using.

“What we found over the last decades there has been decreased participation in commercial fisheries, so fewer people are fishing now than they used to and there has been increased specialization,” she said.

Beaudreau said people are fishing for fewer species and with fewer permit types than they were three decades ago.

“So it is looking at commercial fisheries, marine fisheries across Alaska but mostly focusing in the Gulf of Alaska,” Beaudreau explained.

Researchers looked at these long-term data from fisheries landings, collecting notes when people go fishing, when they come back to port, and where they land their fish fill out reports.

“That is how many pounds of each type of species have they landed, and then how much money they have made off of that catch and so that’s the data set that we analyzed to look at those shifts over time,” she said.

Beaudreau took a key study approach and looked at four particular fisheries that have had different pressures over time, like the commercial herring fisheries in Prince William Sound.

“We looked at what fishermen did before and after the herring fishery closure, and we also looked at what happened in the pacific halibut industry after the implementation of individual fishing quotas,” she said.

She also explained the quota program that was implemented in the mid- 90’s.

“We also looked at the effects of price shocks and salmon fisheries, and the effects of the Exxon mobile spill in fisheries that oil impacted region,” said Beaudreau.

She said if fishermen have more or less diverse fishing portfolios, (portfolios meaning the kind of permits people are using to indicate the types of different species in areas they are fishing), having a diverse fishing portfolio might allow for some buffering against different types of pressures and risks.

“So the analogy that we use is financial portfolios, so if you invest in a diversity of different stock then you may have more of a buffer against the ups and downs of the market,” she said.

She asked the question, “How did that diversity shift? Or did the diversity act as a buffer against some of these pressures?”

She explained, “Lets say, so if you are having a really bad year in one of those fish populations, then maybe you can fish more in another one that is doing well, or if there is a fishery closure for one of the things that you are targeting maybe you can fish more for other species,” she said.

Beaudreau found that there has been more and more specialization over the years, so perhaps fishermen don’t have as much opportunity to diversity their portfolios now than they used to decades ago.

“People are becoming more specialized, they are tending to fish for fewer things or hold fewer permits for commercial fishing, and some of the things we looked at were some of the drivers of that,” she said.

Each case study the researchers looked at they found different things happening in different areas contributing to the effects on fishing communities.

She said overall there patterns that are coming out that tell a consistent story.

These patterns being that of less people fishing than there used to be, fishing for fewer species than they used to be, quota systems and cost of entry into new fisheries are also working as barriers making it harder for people to diversify, and now, an older generation of fishermen to pick up the slack. Beaudreau called that the “The greying of the fleet.”

But Beaudreau said fishermen are very good at adapting to constant change. She said that’s really part of the nature of commercial fishing, facing a lot of uncertainty in all of those dimensions.