San Diego

Cohort Participants

Discussion Date

The San Diego Area Ports focus group discussion on March 2, 2021 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 San Diego Area Ports 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 San Diego Area Ports discussion, see this focus group summary. For more information on focus group participant recruitment selection criteria, see this recruitment process overview.



Focus group participants from the San Diego area identified several species they considered to be healthy including spot prawn, bluefin tuna, and California spiny lobster. Participants identified several strong local, direct-to-consumer dockside markets to sell their catch, which they believed were strengthened in response to the poor wholesale market options in the San Diego area, as well as an adaptation to COVID-19 impacts. They highlighted that these markets can be challenging to build and cultivate given the time commitment required. Participants reported infrastructure in San Diego Bay as acceptable, with several places for fishermen to berth and a fairly new launch ramp. They also appreciated Point Loma, where there is easy access to fuel, bait, and other commercial fishing services. When asked about job satisfaction, participants stated commercial fishing is a great job for those who enjoy fishing, but that it can be challenging to make a stable living unlike more traditional professions that require more formal education.


Several participants expressed concerns about loss of kelp habitat due to poor water quality near Imperial Beach, as well as decreased size and abundance of target species. Regarding future marine resource health, participants were more concerned about management than future ocean changes. Participants identified several barriers to access affecting San Diego area fishermen, most notably MPAs, and also high permit costs, trap and quota limits, and interactions with the sport and international fishing fleets. When asked about income from fishing, several participants shared that many fishermen need a second source of income to cover overhead costs, in addition to personal expenses. Participants identified three main wholesale buyers available to San Diego area fishermen which they believed offer extremely low prices due to competition from imported seafood, particularly from Mexico. Several participants noted the poor availability of infrastructure and services in Mission Bay, including the lack of docks, ice, fuel, supply shops, off-loading facilities, and gear storage. Participants stated San Diego area fishermen are wary of new entrants, including captains and crew, to the commercial fishing industry because they believe increased participation in the commercial fishing industry would increase competition and decrease fishermen’s overall access to marine resources, which is already limited by factors like MPAs. Participants stated they have good, long-standing friendships with many fishermen in the San Diego area, though there are others they distrust. Several participants expressed concerns that the San Diego Fishermen’s Working Group (SDFWG) is not representative of all San Diego commercial fishermen. They characterized the relationship between local fishermen and external groups as weak, and shared that most local fishermen do not engage in policy processes.


MPA Takeaways

Participants reported several positive effects from MPAs including increased size of fish and lobsters, and abundance of rockfish. Participants also noted negative effects from MPAs, including that larger fish inside MPAs have increased predation on target commercial species, and a loss of kelp habitat due to restrictions on sea urchin harvesting. Participants have not experienced spillover outside the MPAs. Due to displacement of fishing efforts from historically important fishing grounds, several participants explained there is a high degree of crowding and competition near MPA boundaries. Participants said that prior to  MPA implementation, San Diego area fishermen would rotate fishing effort along the coast, but this is no longer possible due to MPAs restricting access to many productive fishing grounds throughout the region. Participants expressed extreme dissatisfaction with MPA management, citing poor communication of information and decisions regarding the MPA network. They were unaware of monitoring studies in the local MPAs, and stated information about MPA monitoring efforts has not been communicated with fishermen. Participants characterized MPA enforcement as inadequate, ineffective, and unfair towards commercial fishermen.


Direct from focus group participants

“The political environment is by far more scary than any fishing in the natural resource environment. We will adapt as we always have to fishing conditions. You can’t always adapt to political conditions.”

“I think if the next generation, if there was just the guy that bought a commercial permit, it’d be pretty much next to impossible to make a living at it unless he bought a lobster license or a crab license. And those… what’s a lobster license, 100 grand minimum? A shrimp license, [. . .] like a million dollars [. . .] So the access to commercial fishing, I don’t think it’s that great. [. . .] The full-time guys, I think you can count ‘em on two hands how many people do it year-round.”

“I would say the markets suck around here. We’ve had three choices, basically. We had [wholesale market names redacted] that paid cents for seafood. I got a guy that drives all the way down from Los Angeles to buy my seafood. And I’ve been with him for ten, 12 years now because around here, the price is horrible, and they only want to buy the premium on premium. And they got a truck coming up from Mexico [. . .] and you bring in the same red rock cod, they want to pay you a dollar because you’re from San Diego, and you can’t make a living on that. So we have three choices. It’s a monopoly; [they] all get together before lobster season and fix the price, which is illegal. And they say they don’t do it, but they do. It’s horrible. Without the overseas market, I wouldn’t work commercial fishing.”

“I think it’s hard [for] crew members. The seasonality of the job is brutal. [During] lobster [season], you’re rich. The next three months now, keeping a crew member, he’s going to make nothing. So you work 12 to 15 hours a day for two months and then [it’s] ‘I need you to take three months off and not make any money and then come back and start lifting heavy stuff.’ It’s hard to retain crew.”

“I feel like we’re all trying to protect ourselves, too, because we don’t want to see them shut more things down. We’re always afraid to communicate with NGOs, and there’s a huge gap that needs to be bridged by someone. Yeah, there will always be that gap between the NGOs, policymakers, academics, and the fishermen themselves. [. . .] The San Diego Fisherman’s Working Group, that’s an entity of its own, and they [external groups] only communicate with fishermen through the [San Diego] Fisherman’s Working Group. It’s like, there’s other ways of communicating with fishermen, but that seems to be the only avenue people know of or go out of their way to ask.”

“With the MPAs though, it kind of started separating size class in a lot of ways [. . .] larger fish school together, smaller fish school together. All large fish in the MPAs. Same thing with lobsters a lot of times. So right now, we’re just waiting for time to maybe equalize [the populations] to some degree. I know in the sea urchin populations, it’s kinda the opposite. MPAs become dead zones. The feed lines and everything else, they’re just dying because you’re getting bigger urchins. Without culling the urchins, those areas become stagnant. They don’t move around the same way everything else does, in that respect.”

“I think a lot of fishermen see [the MPA network] as ‘it’s just closed and it’s going to be closed forever, and they’re going to make a new one and it’s going to be closed forever.’ And I think that a lot of fishermen’s views is that they’re not showing any like ‘oh, let’s reopen this one.’ They’re just creating more territory for people to poach… closures.”

“I’m on the ocean a lot, and I have yet to see any kind of studies going on, monitoring. I’ve never seen any research of any iota in the local Point Loma one [Cabrillo SMR], which is at the entrance to the harbor. I’ve not seen any kind of research vessel, divers, anything in these MPAs. So I don’t know how they’re researching or how they’re getting their info.”

“I think the reality is that there’s no enforcement. There’s a ton of sport fishermen fishing in those areas. And the thing is, we [commercial fishermen] have more to lose. If they take our permits away, that’s our livelihood. Whereas these guys are like ‘oh, I might get a ticket. I’m going to go fish in the MPAs and there’s no enforcement.’ But like, would we ever roll the dice? No, we have more to lose. So that’s where the whole enforcement component of it doesn’t make any sense.”

Top image: Fishing boats tied up in Point Loma. Credit: Jerry Philpott