In this study, we engaged 84 commercial fishing community members (hereafter referred to as ‘study participants’) from 18 different California ports to understand their perceptions of their fishing community’s social and economic well-being, as well as their perceptions about the health of the ocean resources they depend on.
Read the summary of this key finding below to understand study participants’ perceptions of the social, economic, and environmental well-being of their commercial fishing communities across California. For the full version of study findings, read the report.
Based on focus group discussions with study participants, several themes emerged highlighting common perceptions of commercial fishing community well-being. Participants reported many challenges facing California’s commercial fishing communities, and expressed concerns about the future of California’s commercial fishing industry related to fisheries management, labor/workforce recruitment, and future ocean conditions. They also shared some bright spots including high job satisfaction, healthy marine resources, and strong relationships between commercial fishermen.
Figure 1. Bar chart showing statewide averages of commercial fishing focus group participants’ perspectives about well-being outcomes, ordered from highest to lowest satisfaction.
Challenges facing commercial fishing communities,
plus a few bright spots
In almost three-quarters of the California ports we held focus groups in, participants reported low well-being scores, with participants from Los Angeles/Long Beach Area Ports, Santa Cruz, Crescent City, and Eureka reporting the lowest overall well-being scores. In about a quarter of the ports, including Ventura/Channel Islands Area Ports, Morro Bay-Port San Luis, Trinidad, and Santa Barbara, participants rated their ports’ fishing community well-being positively.
Overall, study participants reported the lowest scores about their access to harvestable resources, the state of infrastructure to support fishing operations, and the recruitment of deckhands or new captains into the fishing industry.
Across California ports, the bright spots that participants reported included job satisfaction, current health of marine resources, and social relationships within their local communities.
Commercial fishing perceptions of economic well-being
Participants shared challenges about their commercial fishing communities’ economic well-being specifically related to fishing infrastructure, access to harvestable resources, income from fishing, and markets.
Participants from many ports reported that their fishing community lacked at least some crucial pieces of infrastructure such as ice, fuel, haul-out facilities, processors, hoists, piers, and gear storage. Even ports with self-reported available and reliable infrastructure expressed a desire for more funding and support for infrastructure development and maintenance.
Participants also shared interlinked challenges with sufficient access to marine resources to support the fishing fleet due to regulatory factors. They said permits, seasons, and area/depth closures, as well as availability of consistent, diverse, and local markets, make it difficult for many to earn a living from fishing.
Many participants across all California ports expressed that in order to support their livelihoods, fishermen needed to pursue an additional source of income, or rely on income and health benefits from a partner.
For somebody to get into this industry right now […] You can make good money, but there’s a possibility that you’re going to be spending a lot of money and not making nothing and be left high and dry without anything. You’re gambling, big time.
For some guys, it seems like they really struggle to make ends meet, and there’s some that do really well.
The infrastructure is problematic because without the infrastructure, you can’t have the fishing. And if you don’t have the fishing, you can’t have the [funding to support] infrastructure.
The infrastructure – definitely, there’s room for improvement. […] it’s pretty much fallen apart up and down the whole coast. […] Some of these ports […] can’t keep up with any influx of vessels coming into any one spot.
Commercial fishing perceptions of social well-being
Overall, study participants shared stories about strong relationships, camaraderie, and support among the local fishing community, with more than half indicating they felt relationships were very strong between fishermen within their local port. They also described a sense of fulfillment in their fishing careers, with key highlights being the independence of the job and working closely with nature.
Participants also shared perspectives about challenges related to social well-being, including weaker external relationships with groups outside of local port communities, low recruitment and retention of new captains and crew to the industry, and regulatory burdens and financial stress affecting the ability to pay bills with one commercial fishing income.
There’s some strong relationships within the fishery, like a real bond there. Being a younger guy, I’ve definitely had a handful of older fishermen [who are] like mentors that took me under their wing, […] so I’d describe those relationships as strong. And I think that’s really important for passing the fishing heritage on, especially for me because I don’t come from a fishing family.
I’m very satisfied, even though it’s a struggle and my stress is through the freakin’ roof. I’m still satisfied with my job because I have a lot of fulfillment and purpose and I do have a secure job: no one is going to fire me […] it’s a good job.
I think the fishermen are more endangered now than the resource itself. As an industry, […] we’re in a critical moment right now where all these other forces, including the regulatory management aspects, the gentrification of our ports, the markets that are driving the economies of our fishing industries… those are all things that I think are putting fishermen out of work and keeping new fishermen from coming into the industry.
Commercial fishing perceptions of environmental well-being
Study participants perceived the present health of marine resources as strong, though they did indicate concerns about future marine resource health and how it will potentially affect future fishing opportunities, specifically for salmon and sea urchin/kelp forest dynamics. Primary worries shared by participants were about the impacts of climate change, habitat loss, water pollution and the politics of water management, and the effectiveness of fisheries management.
While there were some concerns, many participants also commented on the cyclical nature of the ocean, and believed even species that are in a down-cycle will come back up again. Participants felt positive about the health of species such as rockfish, Dungeness crab, lingcod, prawn/shrimp, halibut, rock crab, and California sheephead.
The salmon are in trouble in their riverine and estuarine habitat, and the whole effort to put a whole lot of money into MPAs [marine protected areas] just doesn’t deal with the salmon problem. There’s a lack of will for enforcement of water law in the rivers.
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.
Ocean conditions are the main thing that are causing our worry because domoic acid caused delays in our crab season for years and quality keeps the crabs too light to start and our seasons get shorter every year, so that’s a main worry. And then we all saw the starfish die off, so how fragile is life in this ocean? Could the crabs be next? We don’t know, so you’d be a fool not to be worried, being a fisherman.
The pressures aren’t on the actual fishery or on the species. It’s more on the regulations surrounding fishing. Like [for Dungeness] crab, for instance, the pressure is on whale entanglement, domoic acid, fair starts, and regional disputes […] but the actual crabs are doing pretty well.
The ocean looks healthy to me. I mean, the RCA [Rockfish Conservation Area] has been closed for so long now, [there’s an] abundance of rockfish in the shallows that never used to be there.
The red urchin industry up here is in complete disaster. Our 2019 harvest for the Fort Bragg area was 1% of what it was in 2014.