The Fort Bragg Area Ports focus group discussion on November 5, 2020 included five community members from a range of commercial fisheries. Participants provided their perspectives on MPA outcomes and the health and well-being of the Fort Bragg area commercial fishing community, including environmental conditions, markets, infrastructure, and social relationships. A synthesis of these perspectives is captured below.
For the full summary of the Fort Bragg Area Ports discussion, see this focus group summary. For more information on focus group participant recruitment selection criteria, see this recruitment process overview.
When discussing ecological effects from the MPA network, participants perceived MPAs have not had an effect on species like rockfish but that MPAs have negatively affected kelp, specifically the loss of kelp due to restrictions on sea urchin harvesting. Participants reported Fort Bragg area fishermen’s livelihoods have not been strongly affected by local MPAs, which they stated are located away from ports and harbors. However, some participants reported negative impacts on sea urchin divers. With regard to MPA management, participants identified poor communication of information and decisions about the MPA network. They also felt that fishermen’s knowledge is not valued in MPA management or monitoring. Participants considered MPA enforcement as inadequate due to a lack of capacity among CDFW wardens, and believed fishermen are responsible for enforcing local MPA regulations.
“I look at fishing, and I know a lot of other people do too, as a lifestyle; it’s not so much of a job. So even if we aren’t doing good and the industry isn’t the best, we’re still happy with what we do [. . .] The stress might be high: we don’t know how well the next day out is going to be when you go fishing. But we’re fishermen, that’s what we are.”
“The port in general is a really great community to be in to just problem solve and get involved or just be open to what’s going on in other fisheries. People are very community-minded as far as sharing information [about other fisheries] and I’m always interested in what’s going on in the others. So I feel I’m always grateful for that eagerness.”
“As for relationships with nonprofits and government, I voted ‘Strong’: with this whole kelp disaster and [the urchin] fishery being in a disaster, [the] fishery has been getting more attention than it ever has. And the commercial urchin industry and the divers in it are more willing to share their experiences and work together with other groups now more than ever.”
“The red urchin industry up here is in complete disaster. Our 2019 harvest for the Fort Bragg area was one percent of what it was in 2014, so that has been a pretty steady decline. So far this year, we’re almost to two percent of 2014, so we’re doing a little bit better. But that is no comparison to how well things were before this [urchin] disaster.”
“The kelp serves as a nursery for a lot of fisheries. So even though some fisheries may still be doing well, I think that if in the long-term the kelp doesn’t come back, it’ll have more widespread effects.”
“There are a number of different fisheries that go on in this port [. . .] the focus of the fishermen has definitely changed. Sea urchins were big for a while in the past. 2013 was a big salmon year. So there’s been these ups and downs in the different fisheries. We had a really limited season for this area for salmon this year; most of the salmon were landed in ports south of us.”
“I really see three main fish buyers [. . .] in the river. [. . .] I know [that one of the buyers has] dropped in the number of staff that they have, it used to be a booming plant and now it’s just [two employees].”
“We don’t have a public hoist for fishermen to do direct or wholesale, or anything like that. If you want to use a hoist, you need to go through a buyer or processor, someone that owns a dock, and then usually they want a cut off the top. The fuel dock is just one fuel dock – the tide can affect you; the price of the fuel affects a lot of people. [. . .] So, infrastructure-wise, I think we’re kind of hurting.”
“I have actually been kind of encouraged that there are [young] people entering the fishing business in Fort Bragg who are coming in and purchasing boats. For the most part, they’ve been pretty successful because they’re young and hard working people. There are also a lot of the older fishermen that are retiring or just disgusted with the whole thing and doing something else.”
“The loss of productivity from urchins in these no-take zones outweighs any effect of the MPA itself. In the early 80s when the urchin divers started to come in, I was talking to one of the oldest survey divers in the industry and they were seeing double recruitment of nereocystis [kelp] after the urchin divers came into an area and took urchin. And that happened year after year: it was a sustained increase of productivity as a result of urchin divers being in there. And the resource managers were not acknowledging that important benefit that urchin divers were giving. [Humans are important] for the health of the whole ecosystem here because we don’t have a keystone predator, meaning the sea otter, and humans are the next best thing. And of course, the pycnopodia sea star is no longer present for predating purple urchins now.”
“There’s a real problem with communication between resource management [including MPA management]/white collar folks and fisheries folks. And so I’ve seen, especially in the case of people who are in the agencies, a skepticism [about the] knowledge that fishermen or anybody doing any kind of harvest work can bring to the table. [. . .] It’s clear that the agency isn’t recognizing the historical body of knowledge of people who have been [fishing] here in the same [areas] for the last 20 or 30 years.”
Top image: Large fishing boats tied up. Credit: Cheryl Chen