Commercial fishing community perceptions of California’s Marine Protected Area (MPA) network

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

Attitudes and perceptions are key components in measuring the success and performance of MPAs – particularly amongst stakeholders who depend on marine resources for their livelihoods. To understand how California’s commercial fishing communities have been affected by MPAs, we engaged 84 commercial fishing community members (hereafter referred to as ‘study participants’) from 18 different California ports to learn about their perceptions of California’s MPA network and port community well-being. With the assistance of neutral facilitators, we held focus groups to understand and assess how MPAs have affected commercial fishermen’s livelihoods and the health and availability of marine resources. We also asked about commercial fishermen’s satisfaction with MPA management, monitoring, and enforcement.

Read the summary of this key finding below. For the full version of study findings, read the report

Key Takeaways

The main takeaways from focus group discussions indicate that study participants had negative perceptions of and have had poor experiences overall with the MPA network. Study participants reported challenges related to their ability to earn a living from fishing for a variety of reasons, including loss of important fishing grounds, increased travel distance to fish, and increased fishing pressure in areas that remain open to fishing. In general, study participants were dissatisfied with MPA management, monitoring, and enforcement, and reported that communication from MPA managers was very poor, creating an overall negative impression of the MPA management experience. Very few participants perceived MPA effects on marine resource health as positive. 

Figure 4. Bar chart showing statewide averages of commercial fishing focus group participants’ perspectives about MPA outcomes, ordered from highest to lowest.

Figure 1. Bar chart showing statewide averages of commercial fishing focus group participants’ perspectives about MPA outcomes, ordered from highest to lowest.

Study Methods

Our team of researchers held port-specific focus groups with 3-8 fishermen from July 2020 through May 2021. Due to COVID-19, these discussions were held via Zoom after training and troubleshooting to ensure all participants felt comfortable and had equal access to study questions and information.

Overall, we asked study participants to score 20 questions on a five-point scale, five of which were about outcomes from the MPA network. (See findings related to commercial fishing community well-being and CFPV/charter boat fishing community well-being) Participants then discussed and reflected on their responses together as a group, and were invited to re-score their responses if they wished, to reflect updated thinking based on conversations with their peers.

Themes from the responses reflected opinions about MPA ecological outcomes, MPA livelihood outcomes, and MPA management outcomes.

Detailed description of the focus group approach and questions can be found on the Resources page.

Commercial fishing perceptions of MPA livelihood outcomes


Across the board, focus group participants from California commercial fishing communities reported experiencing negative livelihood effects from the MPA network. 

Through these conversations, we identified several common perceptions about participants’ livelihood outcomes, including lost access to preferred fishing grounds, increased crowding and competition along MPA  boundaries, and increased travel distance to fish, all of which participants said lead to increased cost of doing business and increased safety risks in inclement weather. 

Many fishermen emphasized the compounding effects of MPAs with other fishing restrictions, including fishing season delays and early closures, depth restrictions, and quotas/limits for target species. Several participants discussed fishermen moving ports or even leaving fisheries as a result of MPAs.

“Well, I think the guys are still able to fill their quota. It takes longer. More fuel to burn, more time on the ocean… You’re still able to do it if you fish hard. These guys fish every day, the nearshore guys that go every day. So they’re still making a living, but of course, they’re spending a lot more going. So it just takes longer, and they are fishing the areas harder than they would if the areas were still open where we saw fish.”

Commercial fisherman

Morro Bay - Port San Luis

fishing boats floating on the water in front of a large rock protruding from the ocean

Commercial fishing perceptions of MPA management, monitoring, and enforcement

Participants were overwhelmingly dissatisfied with MPA management, monitoring, and enforcement. On theme with other perceptions, study participants cited poor communication by managers about current MPA management and monitoring activities, which caused many to believe the MPA network isn’t being managed or monitored effectively. Based on their past experiences, many participants indicated that it is important to provide meaningful recognition and inclusion of commercial fishermen’s  knowledge and expertise in MPA management and monitoring efforts. Participants desired greater collaboration between managers and  the commercial fishing fleet in both the design and implementation of MPA monitoring studies. Study participants perceived a lack of MPA enforcement of illegal fishing among the sport fishing fleet, which they attributed to lack of funding and limited capacity of CDFW wardens.

illustration of a school of small fish swimming

“I just think there’s a lot of confusion about what the MPA’s goal was, like, what they are trying to achieve. And they haven’t put it in a measurable form for us, so fishermen have a hard time with that. Like, if you can say, hey, well, we’re intending to increase rockfish stocks by this much or we’re expecting the kelp to regrow this much or, you know, we’re expecting to save the bottom by not letting people drag in there. Something that we can measure would be good for us to understand the goal of an MPA process. And I just haven’t seen that to this point.”

Commercial fisherman


“The one thing that I think is extremely negative is that when they originally set up the plan, they asked fishermen where the areas were they didn’t want the MPAs, and that’s right where they put them, in some really prime turf [. . .] they took some really, really productive turf. So that, I mean, they targeted areas that we told them we wanted to keep.” 

Commercial fisherman

Santa Barbara

When assessing ecological outcomes, very few participants perceived the MPA effects on marine resource health as positive, though about half believed there was no real change to marine resources as a result of MPAs, or said they didn’t have enough information to assess ecological effects. Study participants reported that the abundance and/or size of some species such as rockfish, lobster, and sea cucumber may have benefited from MPAs.

Negative perceptions included commonly cited concerns about increased fishing pressure in non-protected waters, and cascading effects from kelp decline related to urchin population spikes in MPAs.

Commercial fishing perceptions of MPA ecological outcomesillustration of seaweed


“I think what ultimately ended up having to happen was that the few areas [remaining open fishing grounds] that were actually [still] viable for fishermen to fish ended up sustaining a lot more pressure than they would have otherwise. […] Now, the areas in the MPAs, yeah, I’m sure they’re great and beautiful and pristine. […] But I think the externalities associated with fishing on the [MPA boundary] lines, having to heavily target a few areas that are viable, could result in some pretty negative impacts.”

Commercial fisherman

Moss Landing

“I do think that MPAs are a good thing on a certain scale, like the science behind it and what we’ve seen, it’s good to have little reserves to buffer the populations. For the sea cucumber fishery, […] those animals have to aggregate really densely to spawn and it’s good to have some areas for them to do that [and] get no pressure whatsoever. So for that fishery, I would lean towards the neutral to positive [outcome from MPAs].”

Commercial fisherman

Santa Barbara