Commercial and CPFV fishing community perspectives on COVID-19 impacts and adaptations

illustration of a school of small fish swimming

The COVID-19 pandemic emerged as our study was being conducted, creating an undeniable condition that we felt important to address. Below  we present study participants’ perspectives related to COVID-19 effects on California’s commercial and commercial passenger fishing vessel (CPFV/charter boat) fishing communities.

Key Takeaways

Like many, focus group participants experienced  disruptions to life and business due to COVID-19. They recounted negative effects from the pandemic, including interruptions to markets, health-related risks, and challenges accessing waterfronts. As needed, commercial and CPFV fishing community members developed adaptation strategies to cope.

Figure 10. Pie chart showing commercial fishing focus group participants’ perceived disruption of COVID-19 to their port’s fishing operations (n=63).

Figure 1. Pie chart showing commercial fishing focus group participants’ perceived disruption of COVID-19 to their port’s fishing operations (n=63).

Overview of commercial fishing perceptions of COVID-19 impacts

Commercial fishing focus groups participants discussed  experiencing negative impacts and disruptions in their fishing activities due to COVID-19. Well over half of participants reported a high amount of disruption, a third reported some disruption, and less than 10% reported very little disruption to their everyday business activities.


COVID-19 disruptions to traditional commercial fishing operations and markets

Commercial fishing focus group participants reported that COVID-19 affected overseas and export markets, restaurant sales, and the trucking operations of their buyers. These disruptions resulted in very low prices and in some cases, the inability to sell catch, leading some fishermen to decide not to fish due to low prices and health concerns. Other fishermen decided to fish more, in order to produce higher catches and offset lower prices. Some participants reported that markets for certain fisheries, such as salmon, in certain locations were either not affected or even improved, particularly for fisheries that allowed for direct sales.

Health-related challenges for commercial fishermen  from COVID-19

Health concerns and crew challenges were reported in various ports by focus group participants across the state. Some fishing operations decided to reduce crew sizes due to health concerns, while other operations struggled to maintain crew during the pandemic, which some participants suggested was due to the availability of pandemic-related unemployment benefits.

As a trailer boat commercial fisherman, during COVID, in the beginning, I had to threaten these lawsuits to get access to the boat ramps […] There was two months where I wasn’t able to fish because the boat ramps were closed.

Commercial fisherman

San Diego Area

This past year, I’ve done things that I never envisioned that I would have to do just to survive the COVID thing. We fished to when the truck was available, not to when the weather was good. And we had buyers that wanted, on one particular day of the week, they only wanted small fish […] So we were throwing fish over the side that normally would have been marketable. […] We managed to make a year out of it, but it wasn’t easy.

Commercial fisherman

Morro Bay - Port San Luis

In my particular case, what I found last summer with COVID around was that the demand for the salmon increased, not decreased. […] We have more people here now than we’ve ever had before; they’re trying to get out of the Bay Area. […] And so I […] found that the markets were pretty good for the way that I sell the fish. I usually catch less and try to sell them to individuals as much as possible to get more per fish.

Commercial fisherman

Point Arena

When rock cod season opened up, people weren’t going into town or going to grocery stores. They wanted to stay home. All I had to do was text a few people, and we would have our orders before we even went fishing.

Commercial fisherman

Shelter Cove

It’s also been hard to negotiate the whole thing with your deckhand on the boat, without having the [ability] for social distancing all the time and the impact of that with your family [and being able to] work that all out, it’s just made it a lot more difficult.

Commercial fisherman

Point Arena

Commercial fishing adaptation strategies in the face of COVID-19

Study participants reported that commercial fishermen used creative adaptation strategies to keep their businesses afloat during COVID-19. Some commercial fishermen  grew their existing direct marketing businesses during the pandemic, while others developed new strategies, including using social media or  websites to sell their catch directly  to consumers and/or restaurants. In general, participants expressed an interest in  maintaining or expanding their direct marketing efforts, since many of these ventures were lucrative during the pandemic.

We did an online store and added a bunch of product that we were getting from other fishermen, which was around the same time that the supermarkets were emptying out and people didn’t want to go shopping. So the option to pull up and have a box full of seafood handed to them was super appealing.

Commercial fisherman

Santa Barbara

I’m new to the whole off the dock sales thing…other fishermen in this port have many years worth of experience more than I do…I think that maybe the demand has always been there for getting your seafood off the dock and directly from the source [and] maybe COVID-19 has helped push that demand a little bit further and increased that demand maybe slightly.

Commercial fisherman


The reason we pivoted to e-commerce and more direct-to-consumer sales [was] because restaurants shut down due to COVID. […] I dreamt of doing an online sale thing prior to that, but I feel like I got kicked in the butt a little bit and didn’t have much of a choice because we had no other outlet for our  catch. [. . .] I hope things get better for fishermen and there’s more outlets and the markets strengthen a bit here. I think the consumers definitely want it, it’s just logistics of getting it to them.

Commercial fisherman

San Diego Area

I have an Instagram page, and I don’t like people or social media. Now I’m [using social media] to sell direct-to-consumer. We adapted – we’re fishermen, you have to or you go out of business.

Commercial fisherman

San Diego Area

Waterfront access challenges from COVID-19

In several parts of the state, participants reported that both commercial fishermen and CPFV owner/operators experienced challenges accessing the waterfront and their businesses due to COVID-19 restrictions, including beach and waterfront closures in the first three months of the pandemic.

CPFV impacts and adaptations from COVID-19

CPFV focus group participants reported that COVID-19 was disruptive and changed the way CPFV businesses operate. 85%  of focus group participants reported high or very high disruption and only 5% reported low levels of disruption.

Participants across focus groups recounted several-month long CPFV business closures early on in the pandemic as a result of state- and county-imposed COVID-19 restrictions, which led to a loss of revenue for CPFV businesses. When operations resumed at reduced capacity to allow space for physical distancing, revenues continued to be negatively affected. CPFV owners/operators also invested in personal protective equipment (PPE) like gloves and masks, and implemented safety measures in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19 on their boats, including regular sanitizing between and during fishing trips.

Figure 17. Pie chart showing CPFV focus group participants’ perceived disruption of COVID-19 to their region’s fishing operations (n=20).

Figure 2. Pie chart showing CPFV focus group participants’ perceived disruption of COVID-19 to their region’s fishing operations (n=20)..

We raised the price a little bit. Ran lighter loads. It didn’t compensate for the full normal year deal. And then for the family groups, we did a regular deal. But people were scared at the beginning. A lot of people were scared. We didn’t get going until middle of June almost, usually we start in April, so there’s three months right there. We all felt it.

CPFV owner/operator

Ventura/Santa Barbara Area Region

We had a fair amount of cancellations from out of the area, and we filled in a lot of it with local business. And after that, […] we pretty much mostly took regulars or people we know – we didn’t take people from LA or San Diego if they wanted to come up and fish, but we did take people from Redding and Anderson and Chico and stuff if we knew a little bit of their health history.
CPFV owner/operator

North Coast Region

round image of a single boat approaching a small port area, hills and palm trees in the background
I bought foggers, I got gallons of sanicide, I got gloves, boxes and boxes, which are really hard to find, and they ain’t cheap anymore. Lots of masks. I mean, you name it, we got it, […] I got a shed full of stuff. And we use that stuff daily, hourly, minute-ly sometimes. That stuff costs a fortune. You know, I can’t tell you how many thousands of dollars [were] spent…
CPFV owner/operator

Ventura/Santa Barbara Region

[COVID-19 has been] highly disruptive. When we were shut down, people had to find other jobs to pay bills. Maybe they found something that paid them better or not. But [we had] crew issues, people not coming back either because they didn’t want to come back or they were fearful to come back or whatever. It was disruptive as far as finding crew to work. And I think that was across the board with everybody. Crew issues were difficult [up and down the California] coast. And people maybe made more money, and didn’t want to come back, like the extra $600 a week in unemployment. So it was disruptive.
CPFV owner/operator

Orange County/San Diego Area Region

aerial view of port, sunny day, blue water, blue sky with puffy clouds