Santa Cruz

Cohort Participants

Discussion Date

The Santa Cruz focus group discussion on December 8, 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 Santa Cruz 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 Santa Cruz discussion, see this focus group summary. For more information on focus group participant recruitment selection criteria, see this recruitment process overview.



When discussing the current health of marine resources, Santa Cruz participants stated rockfish, California halibut, and black cod/sablefish stocks are thriving. Participants characterized relationships among Santa Cruz commercial fishermen as strong. They noted good leadership and engagement in advisory bodies and fishing organizations among a core group within the local fishing community, but acknowledged opportunities for better engagement in policy processes among deckhands and part-time fishermen.


Santa Cruz focus group participants expressed concerns about the future health of marine resources, particularly Dungeness crab, due to changing ocean conditions such as warming waters and ocean acidification. Participants noted fishing income is insufficient due to diminished access to local fishing grounds and prohibitively high permit costs, combined with the high cost of living in Santa Cruz. They discussed the variable market conditions for California halibut and rockfish. Participants explained that management restrictions, combined with competition from large-scale and international fishing operations, has led to the decline of local small-scale, artisanal fishing operations. Participants highlighted inconsistent access to ice, insufficient infrastructure to offload catch, and a lack of parking for potential customers for dockside sales. These challenges contributed to participants’ dissatisfaction with their jobs, despite their love for fishing itself. They added that these challenges present barriers to retaining and recruiting local fishermen. Participants stated relationships with external groups could be stronger, and suggested personal connections and an understanding of the challenges facing local commercial fishermen as avenues to cultivate these relationships.


MPA Takeaways

When discussing MPA ecological outcomes, participants reported that while some local stocks have been rebuilt, it is difficult to determine if this is due to MPAs. Several participants highlighted that increased fishing pressure outside MPAs has depleted local reefs and has lead to heightened risks of marine life entanglements due to compaction of gear. Participants identified negative MPA effects on fishermen’s livelihoods, including increased operational costs and safety concerns due to traveling further distances with decreased opportunity to earn a living from fishing. With regard to MPA management, participants were dissatisfied with the poor communication of goals and information. They were not aware of MPA monitoring goals, results, nor study specifics, and wished for better opportunities for fishermen involvement. Several participants characterized MPA enforcement as unfair, misinformed, and inconsistent for commercial versus recreational fishermen, though  some participants expressed appreciation for the flexibility they experienced in MPA enforcement activities.


Direct from focus group participants

“We [recently] had some port meetings for [Dungeness] crab. We’ve never really had that in the last ten years that I remember, coming together as a group and having a vote. I thought it was awesome because it showed that people that don’t get along the greatest sometimes can come together and maybe make a decision.”

“If we look at the future, with global warming, I’m very concerned. […] And I look at the crab guys this year wondering if they’re even going to get to go crab fishing. And looking at salmon, [it has] been restricted for years and will likely be as restricted this year as it was last year. And I look to the future, all I see is more restrictions and more interest groups taking more of our time, whether it be the southern resident killer whale or Center for Biodiversity suing the Department [California Department of Fish Wildlife (CDFW)] over access to the crab fishery. And so, again, as I look at it in the broadest perspective as I can, and I’m not feeling comfortable with it.”

“For me to go get my [deeper nearshore] quota, I got to do literally a one hundred mile round trip down to Big Sur and back. Just to go get what I can literally get five miles out of the port if we were able to go to Portuguese Ledge or a Soquel Hole or the reef outside Davenport [which are all now inaccessible due to MPA protections]. It’s kind of mind-boggling that they give us all this poundage, but then our environmental footprint has to be so big just to access [it].”

“I sold my boat recently because I saw what was happening with the [Dungeness] crab season. I chose to sell my boat, which I loved, and purchase a boat that was cheaper. I’ve been downsizing. […] For a lot of people, being able to afford to live and fish in California with what’s going on is extremely challenging. It creates a lot of fights in the family and stress. You drink a couple of extra beers.”

“Over the last 20 years when the RCAs were established, those markets we had with open access went away, the fillet lines went away. The only place you’ll find a buyer that can handle any volume is where the draggers are. […] They’re the ones that can bring in 30,000 pounds. But small boat guys like me, we try to catch 500 pounds and sell them at a higher price, but our buyers can’t take that volume of fish because they can’t put the labor into processing it at a competitive price [compared] to the draggers or particularly the Canadian imported products.”

“In Santa Cruz, we have one unloading site. So when you have an influx of salmon, for example, they have a hard time. In fact, they moved the fleet. The salmon fleet goes to other ports because of the difficulty of getting in and out and having access to the hoist in Santa Cruz. And that has to do with the overall decline of the fishery infrastructure more than anything else.”

“In order for commercial fishing to survive, you have to have a vibrant community of commercial fishermen that are dedicated to making this their living, their profession, that they are involved in all aspects of the fishery and that is not being done. It is not viable in today’s climate. And that’s why I rated this as very poor.”

“I mean, [Dungeness] crab, for example, just the push from the NGOs not understanding our livelihoods and the way the little bit of money that is so important to us to survive. […] The lack of understanding from the other side is a huge issue. And we all need to come to the table and start seeing each other face-to-face and having real conversations with the other side to make them understand that we’re not out there to pillage the ocean. We’re out there to pay our bills and do this sustainably.”

““I mean, I’m guilty of it, too. […] When the crab bite gets to be more of a scratch, people put their gear really close to the MPAs. I mean, call it a more profitable area. You’re hoping to suck crab out of those areas, which does make a massive entanglement risk for whales, which is something that probably we should be looking at a little bit more in the future.”

“[MPAs affect] landings. It even affects our crabbing. It affects our salmon. […] Anything you can catch with open access, or guys with permits, they lost out fishing by having MPAs there. It might have cost us more than whoever was involved with the MPAs even knows, because now we’ve overfished a lot of reefs that we’ve had locally just to make up income lost through those MPAs.”

“This is the first talk I’ve had [about] MPAs since the day they told me an MPA was going in. So I would say that the information part of it, it’s pretty horrible considering I’ve fished for like 23 years […] The fairness of it goes into play with how much information you get [from managers] because you feel it’s unfairly done when you have no idea what’s going on. You know that it’s a line that you have to abide by, a rule and regulation that is enforced by Fish and Wildlife when you’re out there. […] So opportunities for fishermen involvement, I would say zero, ‘Very Dissatisfied.’ Effectiveness in achieving goals, I don’t even know a goal they [managers] were going for. I don’t think their goals were achieved. I think that the fishing was fine before and we’ve created problems in search of a solution.”

“Enforcement here is a big thing in California. We have the strictest enforcement in Monterey Bay, but I don’t feel that our officers are willing to work with us on education. When you call or ask any Fish and Wildlife officer you are instantly considered [to have done] something wrong. And it’s like, no, I’m just asking you a question because there’s so many questions that are unanswered. So where can I go to just ask a question without me being red flagged? And that’s a massive issue up and down the West Coast that we don’t feel comfortable with our Fish and Wildlife officers because we can’t ask them questions. […] They go, well, didn’t you didn’t you see this online? I don’t go online. An MPA shouldn’t be a trapezoid, that’s what I’m saying.” 

Top image: Boats tied up in Santa Cruz Harbor. Credit: Faruk Ateş