December 1, 2012 | Vol 68, No. 11

Employment in Alaska’s Seafood Harvesting Industry Rose in 2011

Employment in Alaska’s fisheries is on the rise.

The Bristol Bay Red King Crab fishery that opened on October 15th brought some pretty big crab, according to reader Rick Mezich, including this big fellow harvested by the F/V Starfish and being displayed by an unnamed member of the State of Alaska’s Onboard Observer Program. Photo by Captain Steinar Mannes of the F/V Starfish.

The November issue of Alaska Economic Trends, a publication of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, puts the average number of fish harvesters employed every month in Alaska seafood harvests at 8,064 people. The previous 10-year high was 7,959 back in 2001.

Since fish harvesting is so seasonal and employment varies from fishery to fishery, comparing employment in any particular month is not always useful for identifying industry trends, wrote labor department research analyst Jack Cannon and economist Josh Warren. So they employed a fish harvesting job graph instead, and calculated for readers of Alaska Economic Trends that the greatest amount of fish harvesting employment came during the summer months of May, June and July.

Though salmon fisheries offer the most jobs by far and account for the majority of seasonal work, there are other seasonal fisheries as well. Employment numbers for some fisheries are smaller than those for salmon but vary from month to month just as dramatically, they said.

Nearly 4,700 mostly male harvesters fished for salmon.

Three gear types accounted for nearly 60 percent of harvesting jobs in 2011: longliners, set netters and gillnetters. The longliners caught primarily halibut, sable fish and other bottom fish, while the gillnetters and set netters targeted salmon.

Collectively they provided an average of 4,800 jobs a month.

The report also showed that most fish harvesters are men. Forty-five percent of all permit holders were between the ages of 45 and 60, with the average age being 47.

The data also showed that in 2011 there were roughly twice as many permit holders between the ages of 45 and 60 as there were permit holders between the ages of 30 and 44.

Crewmembers on average were much younger than the permit holders, with an age distribution centered around 21. There was also a higher incidence of crewmembers in their mid-30s, dropping off in the older age range.

Most payroll jobs in Alaska, those where employers pay a wage or salary, are covered under state unemployment insurance laws. Employers are required to report job numbers and wages to the Department of Labor and Workforce Development, who in turn uses these statistics to count jobs and record wages.

The challenge in counting harvesters is that most commercial fishermen are considered self-employed and do not pay into the unemployment insurance system, and crew generally work for a share of the profit rather than a set wage. Without these statistics, the labor agency has to look to other sources to estimate harvester employment.

As a substitute for detailed payroll records, the labor department applies a crew factor to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s weekly landing and daily delivery records along with National Marine Fisheries service landing data to estimate fish harvesting employment.

The state labor department receives these numbers from the Alaska Fisheries Information Network, whose records are a combination of those two sources, and also report fish type, value and volume caught as well as the number of permit holders who fished that year and their residency status.

Permit holders are assigned unique identifying numbers to ensure that they are counted only once, even if they make multiple landings in a month on the same permit. Jobs are also assigned by place of work rather than residence of the workers. Most permits have a geographic designation where specific species can be harvested. Permits that allow fishing anywhere in Alaska receive a special harvest area code.

The permit itself is considered the employer, which means a permit holder who makes landings under two different permits in the same month will generate two sets of jobs.

The labor department also sent surveys to 8,952 permit holders in March 2012 to determine maximum crew requirements by month. The return rate was 32 percent, with almost 94 percent of permit holders who did reply indicating they fished in 2011. Responses from the 2012 survey were combined with those from the 2011 survey to produce a crew factor by gear type. The labor department then applied the crew factor to landings data for active permit holders to estimate 2011 fish harvesting employment.