New lender hopes to draw young Alaska fishermen into the commercial ranks

By: Laine Welch - Mar 20, 2019
Source: Anchorage Daily News

A new lender is offering loans to young Alaska fishermen who want to buy into the halibut and sablefish fisheries, and repayment is based on their catches.

The Local Fish Fund opened this month to provide alternative loan structures to young fishermen as a way to help turn the tide on the trend called the “graying of the fleet.”

The average age of an Alaska fisherman today is 50, and fewer recruits are choosing the fishing life. A big part of what’s turning them away is the cost to buy into fisheries that are limited through permits or, in the case of halibut, catch shares that can cost up to $75 a pound. The high values have made conventional loans unobtainable, especially for crewmen who may know how to catch fish but have little collateral.

“The cost and risk involved in accessing Alaska’s quota share fisheries are comparable to purchasing a hotel as a first step in home ownership,” said Linda Behnken, founder of the Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust and director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association in Sitka. “We’re looking for ways to help the next generation of fishing families get that start and build sufficient equity to eventually access conventional loans.”

The trust is among a group of entities that collaborated on the unique lending concept for more than a decade. They include The Nature Conservancy, Craft3, Rasmuson Foundation, Catch Together, Oak Foundation and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The Local Fish Fund was jumpstarted with $1.5 million from Catch Together and the Rasmuson Foundation and will be centered for now on fisheries in Southeast Alaska.

“We’re hoping to build the fund to be available more broadly and capitalize at a higher level,” Behnken said.

The fund’s flexible “revenue participation” approach will let fishermen repay their loans according to the ups and downs of fishing.

“Part of what has made it really challenging to buy into the fisheries is the uncertainty and how that will affect their ability to make fixed payments that don’t fluctuate as catches or fish prices drop,” Behnken said. “We share and reduce that risk so the payments are based on what fishermen are paid at the dock. If the price falls, so does the payment; conversely, if they go up, it’s a bigger share.”

The Local Fish Fund comes with another good catch. Fishermen are encouraged to participate in local resource conservation projects, such as electronic monitoring or networking to keep whales away from fishing gear. They are given a 1 percent break in their loan interest if they do.

“Part of our goal is to involve more fishermen in conservation research and fisheries management. Our perspective has always been that fishermen are the best problem solvers and when we engage them, we find solutions,” Behnken said.

“Some of the partners we’re working with are coming specifically from that impact investment sector that is trying to obtain conservation goals through innovative lending,” said Dustin Solberg of The Nature Conservancy in Cordova. “There are great opportunities for fishermen and scientists to team up to get a better understanding of our fisheries and the ocean environment.”

Get more information at LocalFishFund.org or localfishfund@gmail.com.

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