The number of boots on deck in Alaska has declined, and most fisheries have lost jobs over the past five years. Overall, Alaska’s harvesting sector ticked downward by 848 jobs from 2015 through 2019.

A snapshot of fish harvesting jobs is featured in the November edition of Alaska Economic Trends by the state Department of Labor. The findings show that after hitting a peak of 8,501 harvesters in 2015, fishing jobs then fell to around 8,000 for the next two years before dropping again in 2018 to about 7,600.

In 2019, average monthly fishing employment was 7,653 and the industry added just 33 fishing jobs all year, reflecting growth of about 0.4 percent.

Estimated gross earnings in 2019 totaled more than $1.7 billion, of which only about $660 million went to permit holders who were Alaska residents; the bulk went to fishermen who call Washington home. Alaska’s salmon fisheries, which represent the most workers on deck, added 93 harvesters in 2019 but remained below the five-year average of 4,472 jobs.

Crab harvesting followed a similar trend, gaining 26 jobs in 2019 but remaining below the fishery’s five-year average by 21 jobs. That drop is the largest in percent terms by species since 2015: a loss of nearly a quarter of that workforce.

Halibut harvesting gained just three jobs last year at 1,071, hovering below its five-year average by 28 fishing jobs, a 2.6 percent decline.

Sablefish (blackcod) was the only other category to add jobs over the five years by 22, settling in at a yearly average of 646 blackcod fishermen.

Two fisheries lost jobs last year — herring and groundfish, which has dropped fishing participants nearly every year since 2015.

Kodiak, for example, is one of Alaska’s top groundfish ports, and lost one-fifth of its harvester jobs (162) over five years, a result largely because of reduced cod quotas.

By region, the Yukon Delta shed the largest share of fishing jobs thanks to poor salmon returns. Last year’s 170 Yukon fishing participants was a 55 percent drop from 2015.

Bristol Bay lost just 11 fishing jobs over five years, a decline of 0.7 percent. Four regions — Southeast, Southcentral, Kodiak and the Aleutians — added jobs last year but haven’t regained their 2015 highs.

Harvester jobs are tricky to calculate because fishermen are considered self-employed. Labor economists infer jobs in a given month from fish landings, and because fishing permits are tied to specific gear types and boat sizes, they can roughly estimate how many people are on the job averaged across a year.

The November Trends also features processing seafood in Alaska during a pandemic and the state’s deflation statistics.

“Alaska’s economy began to shut down in March due to covid-19 and remains weak… of all the nation’s consumer price indexes generated at the state or city level, Alaska’s is the only one showing consistent overall deflation this year. The reasons aren’t yet clear, and it will take time to know whether it’s a temporary aberration, especially if the economy rebounds with any vigor,” wrote DOL economist Neal Fried.

Laine Welch is an independent Kodiak, Alaska-based fisheries journalist. Click here to send her an email.

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