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Fish Factor

'Graying of the Fleet'
By Laine Welch


April 07, 2008

The 'graying of the fleet' has been at the forefront in meetings around Alaska, where stakeholders strategize ways to secure future generations of Alaskan fishermen.

Getting less attention is the drifting away of fishery scientists and managers due to retirement - and Alaska is having a heck of a time filling those ranks.

Nearly half of the state's area biologists will retire soon, said John Hilsinger, director of the commercial fisheries division.

"It's even higher for our division leadership group, which is all the regional supervisors, chief fishery scientists and directors. Eighty percent of those could retire now, or they will be eligible within five years," he said.

The commercial fisheries division now has 300 permanent full time staff and and a vacancy of 14%. "Some of these jobs will be filled, but that's a pretty high vacancy rate," he said, adding that the toughest jobs to fill are the more technical positions, such as biometricians and analyst programmers.

"We are still able to hire good people but it's definitely becoming more difficult. We have to recruit longer for fewer applicants. Sometimes we give up trying to fill a position after a year or two," Hilsinger said.

"If we don't have sufficient expertise, the natural tendency would be to be more conservative in management of the fisheries," ADF&G Commissioner Denby Lloyd said at a town meeting in Kodiak.

The workforce challenge is not unique to Fish and Game, points out Debbie Hart, coordinator of the Fish and Wildlife Careers for Alaskans program.

"It's a national issue. We have an aging work force throughout America so all the state and federal agencies are experiencing workforce challenges, and a smaller pool of applicants coming up behind," she said.

Alaska faces an added recruitment challenge from the huge salary gap between competing state and federal jobs. The state used to pay much more for fisheries biologists and managers, but over the past seven years the disparity has grown. The average paycheck for federal biologists is up to 35 percent higher, and 60 percent to 80 percent higher for regional supervisors, Hilsinger said.

Fishery Recruits R' Us

The University of Alaska is offering a new Bachelor of Arts in fisheries program this fall, the fourth in its line up of fisheries degrees.

"We added it because we felt there are a lot of job opportunities in the industry that could be met with this new degree," said Denis Wiesenburg, dean at the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences (SFOS) at Fairbanks.

The university was able to quickly get moving thanks to a $5 million grant from the Rasmuson Foundation, specific to creating a top notch fisheries degree program for undergraduates.

"They will be able to take more multi-disciplinary classes like seafood business, the Alaska fishing industry, and do internships to get more experience while they are getting their education," Wiesenburg said.

The university's ultimate goal is to "educate Alaskans in Alaska to study and manage Alaska's fisheries," Wiesenburg added.

It already has a good track record: 37 percent of SFOS graduate students to work for Fish and Game or federal agencies in Alaska.

"And they're going to need lots of new trained employees," Wiesenburg said. "The university wants to make sure we're training Alaskans to fill those positions that will come up due to retirements over the next five years."

Wiesenburg said there has been "heartwarming" support from the fishing industry and the Alaska legislature for the new program. The Bachelor of Arts in fisheries program is scheduled to begin this fall. Get more information at


Kodiak-based Laine Welch has been reporting news of Alaska's seafood industry for print and radio for 20 years. Fish Factor appears in 15 newspapers and websites. Laine's Fish Radio programs air daily on more than 25 stations across Alaska.
Contact Laine at msfish[AT]

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Ketchikan, Alaska

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