Commercial and CPFV fishing community perspectives on engagement in fishery management

illustration of a fisherman holding out two large lobsters, blue and red

During our focus group conversations with commercial and CPFV fishing community members across California ports, we learned about study participants’ perceptions of community engagement and participation in fishery management. Study participants discussed countless experiences attending community meetings and town halls, acting as advisors to address specific fisheries issues, and having direct conversations with California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) managers. 

Read the summary of this key finding below. For the full version of study findings, read the report – Establishing a Statewide Baseline and Long-Term MPA Monitoring Program for Commercial and Commercial Passenger Fishing Vessel Fisheries in the State of California

Key Takeaways

As we reached out to potential focus group participants, we found that many commercial and CPFV fishing community members were reluctant to participate in our study due to limited capacity and feelings of frustration based on past experiences in management and research processes. Participants expressed that they had been called upon repeatedly to provide input and feedback without compensation for their time away from their businesses, and shared that they frequently felt unheard and that requests for their input in management processes were hollow gestures.

However, of those community members who chose to participate in this study, a majority were willing to participate in similar conversations in the future.

Study Methods

For this study, we held focus groups with commercial fishermen and CPFV owner/operators  from across  California between July 2020 – May  2021. A total of 84 commercial fishing community members and 20 CPFV owner/operators participated in the study and were asked to score questions on a five-point scale that assessed their perspectives on topics related to their community well-being, in relation to MPAs. After scoring, participants discussed their responses and had one final opportunity to adjust their scoring based on these conversations.


For findings from  the questions related to commercial fishing community well-being, see this page

For findings from the questions related to CPFV/charter boat community well-being, see this page

For a detailed description of the focus group approach and questions, see focus group materials here

Finally, for the full findings of this study, please see the full report here.


Fishing community members are reluctant to participate in management and research processes

Based on their past experiences, many study participants expressed a reluctance to participate in current and future management processes. Participants specifically cited their negative experiences during the MPA implementation process, which led to their concerns that information they shared would be used against fishing communities to restrict their access to fishing opportunities in California.

Many study participants conveyed frustrations that, despite being asked to regularly contribute to management processes, their opinions were often not accepted as valid and valued sources of information by managers and decision-makers. Some CPFV participants believed that the CPFV industry is well represented in management processes by industry groups (e.g., Sportfishing Association of California), while others believed there was room for improvement in the level of organization and engagement across California’s CPFV industry.

Both commercial and CPFV focus group participants  expressed many concerns that the state is not interested in supporting—or investing in—thriving commercial and CPFV fishing industries in California. 

It’s hard as a fisherman not to be distrustful of the process. It just feels like all we do now is suffer. And as fishermen, I think we all feel like the ocean’s generally healthy. And just every day, there’s a new heavy-handed thing coming down on us year after year after year, and it just gets to be less and less satisfying to deal with.

Commercial fisherman

Princeton - Half Moon Bay

They [decision-makers] can say […] they don’t have intentions of doing [anything that will negatively affect fishermen]. […] We’re going to participate in these conference calls because, if you’re not in the room, you’re on the menu. But I mean, we’ve heard this before […] they screwed us. [From] the very beginning, they did. […] It’s hard not to be pissed off.

Commercial fisherman

Morro Bay - Port San Luis

We very much care about the management of the resources. The bitterness is because we disagree with the management and we’re not included in it.

CPFV owner/operator

Bodega Bay Region

small boat entering harbor with docked fishing boats, palm trees and hills in the background

When people call me, always my first thought is I’m skeptic[al] and I usually get ahold of the sport fishing [association – SAC]… I’ll say ‘hey, this is what the people are asking [the CPFV fleet to participate in]. I’m not sure if we want to go down this road.’ Because, like we said, [these types of discussions] always come back and bite us.

CPFV owner/operator

Ventura/Santa Barbara Region

The experience [of this focus group/study] would be great if we can see something happen from it. [If so,] it’d be worth it to do it every year. But I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Commercial fisherman

Point Arena

We’re being railroaded by the powers that be… [they’re putting] us through this dog and pony show to dot the I’s and cross the T’s.

Commercial fisherman


illustration of seaweed

Fishing community members have limited capacity and resources to effectively engage

Many study participants described their limited capacity to participate in stakeholder engagement processes, which often depend on fishing community members volunteering their time and expertise in lieu of paid work. Repeatedly, participants expressed that management restrictions already decrease their ability to earn income, and participating in management processes creates an additional burden.

In fact, during participant recruitment for this study, many fishing community members expressed reluctance to participate at all, based on their need to prioritize fishing and making an income instead. While appreciated, the nominal stipend made available to study participants did not compensate for a day off the water. Participants highlighted the imbalance of how researchers, agency staff, and others are paid to attend management meetings while fishermen are asked to volunteer their time instead.

Over the last 20 years, we’ve adapted our operations to satisfy [decision-makers]. It’s cost us thousands of hours and thousands of dollars to rerig gear, to change things, to do things, to be accepted. For everything that’s been taken away from us, not one thing has ever been given back. So for us to keep coming to the table and trying [to participate in these discussions], it’s getting harder and harder.

Commercial fisherman

Morro Bay - Port San Luis

Round image of boats docked in water, blue sky, large rock behind

Participant satisfaction and willingness to participate in virtual focus groups in the future

A majority of participants were satisfied with their experience participating in this project’s virtual focus groups, and over three-quarters of commercial participants and 100% of CPFV participants  said they would be open to participating in a virtual focus group in the future. Participants expressed appreciation for the training provided to them by the research team, and shared that the virtual environment made it easier for them to open up about their experiences because they were joining the meeting from a place where they felt comfortable, like their homes or boats. Additionally, holding the focus group in a virtual setting made it possible for some participants to join who otherwise would not have been able if the meeting was held in person.

For some focus group participants, the financial compensation provided to them helped make their participation feel less burdensome. Several participants suggested that their participation was dependent upon the layer of confidentiality and impartiality provided by the neutral facilitation team, and some elaborated that the facilitators were professional, transparent, and attentive to their needs and concerns regarding their participation in this project.

Finally, some focus group participants  expressed a preference for in-person meetings, which can enable participants to make more meaningful face-to-face personal connections. They also shared their general distaste for the amount of time they must spend on the computer for regulatory and business purposes, and that they generally prefer to limit their time using computers.

I was very satisfied. Thank you very much for putting this all together and giving us [this space to share] input. Communication, as I keep stressing, is most important. […] I definitely appreciate what you guys have done, opening up potential avenues of communication. We’ll see what happens. You can count on me to be here whenever I can.

Commercial fisherman

San Francisco Area Ports

I think this [virtual focus group] has been a very good way of being able to gather several people in different geographic areas in an area where we feel comfortable, like, for example, I’m at home […] I just feel that if you’re in […] your comfort zone, we’re going to actually say more and remember more. […] It looks like everybody is kind of in their comfort zone.

Commercial fisherman

Bodega Bay

I like [it when] everybody sits around a table, and this isn’t a venue where we’re going to disagree necessarily. […] We’re all like-minded for the most part as it relates to commercial fisheries. I just prefer to do it in person. […] I’m not a fan of technology, […] I’d rather we sat as a group together.

Commercial fisherman

Los Angeles/Long Beach Area Ports