The Orange County Area Ports focus group discussion on September 9, 2020 included six community members from a range of commercial fisheries. Participants provided their perspectives on MPA outcomes and the health and well-being of Orange County’s 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 Orange County discussion, see this focus group summary. For more information on focus group participant recruitment selection criteria, see this recruitment process overview.
Orange County area focus group participants believed local marine resources, including California spiny lobster, were healthy overall and tended to follow natural ocean cycles (though participants mentioned that compaction of fishing effort has had a negative effect on abundance and diversity). With regard to social relationships, participants expressed that local fishermen share camaraderie, are willing to help each other, and demonstrate leadership amongst the fleet. Participants reported satisfaction with their jobs in the fishing industry due to their love for the ocean and fishing, which outweighs the challenges they face.
Orange County area participants expressed concerns about current and future marine resource abundance and diversity, which they believed would improve if fishermen were granted access to more fishing grounds. They identified other restrictions that inhibit access to the resource, including the high cost and insufficient availability of permits, as well as difficulty accessing important infrastructure to support fishing activities. The focus group elaborated on the poor availability and quality of existing infrastructure including limited berthing, gear storage, and slip spaces. Participants explained that many fishermen, apart from those who primarily target lobster, require a second income source due to high overhead costs, the cost of living in Orange County, and generally insufficient income earned from fishing alone. Participants also commented on the difficulty of working with overseas markets due to U.S. tariffs and saturation of products from other countries. Participants expressed frustration that the local markets rely mainly on East Coast lobster, which drives local fishermen’s dependence on overseas markets. They elaborated on the potential for stronger local markets and mentioned current efforts to build these up. Participants characterized recruitment and retention of new entrants into the commercial fishing industry as poor due to the quality of the labor pool, high costs of entry, and inability for local ports to support new fishermen as a result of limited dock space. When asked about the fishing community’s relationship with external groups, participants identified the fact that the Dana Point lobster festival does not sell local lobster as evidence of lack of support. However, participants reported seeing movement in a positive direction in Newport Beach where there exists community support of local fishermen’s efforts to operate more locally and sustainably. There was a suggestion for fishermen to be more engaged with groups that can help to support fishing needs.
Participants described an array of negative effects from Orange County area MPAs, including loss of access to resources and important fishing grounds, compaction of fishing effort along MPA boundaries, and increased competition between fishermen. Participants reported that compaction of fishing effort in less overall fishing area led to a decrease in California spiny lobster abundance and market quality. They added that MPA protections on California sheephead have increased predation by the species on lobster, which has resulted in lower lobster abundance. Participants expressed frustration that their perspectives were not meaningfully included in MPA implementation nor ongoing management decisions, and mentioned that MPA management goals are unclear and poorly communicated. Participants stated their desire to be involved in collaborative MPA monitoring, especially in California spiny lobster tagging studies. Participants characterized MPA enforcement as inconsistent, ineffective, and unfair, especially when comparing enforcement for commercial and sport fishing activities, and said that the commercial fishing fleet effectively enforces MPA regulations among themselves.
“The long term health of the fishery? There’ll be lobsters to catch, it just depends on the [ocean] cycles – if it’s warm water, cold water. And then you’re going to hope for a bleed off out of the closures, because that’s helped out quite a bit in the last few years. And then we have to rely on the weather. [If] we don’t have the weather, they’re not going to be there either. We’ll see what happens.”
“The quality of [the fishing life] is awesome, once you’re out on the water, doing what we do. I can’t miss it for anything. I’ll take the stakes, I’ll risk my life, whatever I can. I love fishing. It’s a challenge, but it’s worth the challenge.”
“I think we all try to get along as best we can. Of course, at times we all have our issues, but as far as trying to work together – if something was to happen to somebody else, oh, we’re right there on top of it. We’re going to go help somebody else; there’s no doubt in my mind.”
“[Local marine resources] would be a lot more abundant if we’d be able to spread out, if we had more turf to fish. But we’re all in one big corner now. We’ve had good years, but I’ve watched it decline over the last six or seven years and [we] used to have a lot more diversity but everything’s just kind of been taken away. There’s nothing we can do about it.”
“It’s not just the restrictions on access like the permit values and being able to acquire a permit for a value set, but the convoluted nature of how people get into fisheries now, whether it’s maybe an overpriced permit or some screwed up lottery system.”
“Everyone has a secondary means of employment or of financial stability because of the fact that fishing is no longer the mainstay. It’s hard to derive a sole livelihood from fishing anymore in Orange County.”
“The tariffs were a big hit the last three years, lowered [the price for lobster] from $17.50 on an opener to $11 – that was huge because there goes all the money. We’re hoping to put some money in the bank, but then it’s all gone once [the tariffs] come back around.”
“We actually have no commercial infrastructure [in Dana Point]. We have no ice machines. The restrooms at the top of the dock are locked and aren’t even open till seven o’clock in the morning, so we can’t even use the facilities if we were to need them. [. . .] Our parking is limited. We have nowhere to store gear. The county is nice enough to allot 18 or 20 docks for the commercial guys, but we have absolutely no support mechanisms such as winches. We don’t even have a large, wide ramp where we can go down and load a large load of traps – I think it’s about a three foot wide ramp. So even that’s very, very difficult.”
“Well, Newport Beach, there’s no place to dock your boat, period. You can get a private dock for $500 a month if you’re lucky, or you can go to a private facility and pay another fortune there per month [. . .] We have to go all the way back to the wharf which takes an hour one way to unload gear and pick up bait and you can’t pick up bait or offload at public docks. It’s a joke. I mean, you can’t can’t do anything in the harbor.”
“Our community at Dana Point actually has a lobster festival which happens two weeks prior to our opening of our fishery, and they don’t even use our Pacific spiny lobsters. They bring in lobsters from Maine and to me, that’s ridiculous. Support us as fishermen in your local community; sell our lobsters, do it within our season. [. . .] But with that lobster fest, it would have opened up the knowledge that we have lobster in the Pacific Ocean. You talk to most people – they don’t even know that we have [a lobster fishery]. They’re like ‘what? They don’t even have claws? You have lobsters here?’”
“The compaction kills us because we’re all fishing in one little area to try to get what little bit [of resource] is able to come out of [the MPAs] in the Orange County region.”
“Fishing sheephead is not just a marketing strategy. It’s also diminishing the amount of predation you would get on the lobsters and your lobster traps [. . .] now our lobsters get pretty predated upon by sheephead on a regular basis. That’s a whole other issue that we had to deal with. So as far as abundance of resources, there’s resources there, it’s our inability to be able to harvest them.”
“I was always sitting and listening and watching [during the MPA planning meetings], and I could tell by the atmosphere in those meetings that they didn’t even care that we were there. [. . .] I just didn’t feel like we needed to even be there because we weren’t being listened to.”
“What are we managing? Because with the Cowcod Conservation Areas and all the closures we did for the rockfish closures, we had an agenda. Our agenda was to reestablish, rehabilitate the diminished boccaccio species and then the cowcod [. . .] Are we managing the social and economic part of the fishermen and making sure that they stay out of [the MPAs]? The bottom line is [the environmentalists’] agenda is different from ours. And as far as the management, I see like CDFW and all the politics of the state are managing us out of our livelihoods, and we’re just trying to survive.”
“There’s not opportunity [for fishermen involvement in MPA monitoring]. I’m one of few vessels only because I lobby hard and I pushed hard to do a little bit of tagging.”
“I like the wardens, and we actually have a good relationship with them. And if you talk to them about [MPA enforcement], they’ll say it’s budget concerns and they can’t get paid their overtime money if they go out there and work and try to catch someone. And that just seems pretty sad that the state is at that point that they won’t give them the money to enforce the laws.”