Charting a Course for Northern California Fishing Communities
By Aileen Yoo
Humboldt County fishing communities have faced challenges with infrastructure and with fewer young people entering the local fishing industry.
HOPING TO ADDRESS ISSUES like these, Humboldt State University researchers are working with local partners to improve the long-term viability of commercial and recreational fishing in Eureka and Shelter Cove.
Led by Environmental Sciences & Management Professor Laurie Richmond, the project began in January. It will result in Community Sustainability Plans, which will take social, economic, and environmental snapshots of the fishing communities and offer concrete recommendations.
“Sometimes with new regulations, the fishing community feels forgotten. Here we can give them a voice,” says Richmond. “So we’re looking at things we can do within the existing regulatory structure and take steps to make sure the fishing fleet survives and thrives.”
Funded by a $271,000 award from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Saltonstall-Kennedy Grant Program, the project stems from a three-year assessment of the human dimensions of California Marine Protected Areas. Starting in 2013, Richmond and Economics Professor Steven Hackett surveyed and interviewed about 200 charter and commercial fishers and conducted focus group meetings with fishers in Eureka, Shelter Cove, and three other North Coast ports.
Their findings painted a picture of an industry affected by substantial declines in the number of fishing vessels and infrastructure to support fishing activities, and an increase in the average age of commercial fishers.
According to Hackett and Richmond, commercial fishers in Eureka have generated annual earnings between about $5 million and $24 million a year over the past decade. In 2013, the port had 193 active vessels and nearly $23 million in earnings at the dock—the third highest of any port in California. But with a shrinking fleet since the 1980s, there are concerns about sustaining support services and infrastructure.
Ninety miles away is Shelter Cove, one of the state’s smallest ports. It currently lacks an active fishers’ association and, due to various market factors, locals often can’t even buy locally caught fish. The tiny sea village supports a fishing industry without a harbor, forcing fishers to rely on tractor-trailers to move boats to and from the water. As a result, commercial and recreational fishing efforts tend to be small-scale. Locals said that close to 100 small vessels used to fish out of Shelter Cove each summer. Now, only a handful of commercial and charter operators work out of the port.
The surveys highlighted another notable statistic: More than a third of North Coast commercial operators are over 60 years old, a trend fishers fear could threaten the legacy and future of local fishing.
Based on these findings, Richmond and Hackett will develop plans that could help rebuild and strengthen Eureka and Shelter Cove fishing economies. HSU researchers will gather socioeconomic data (perceptions about current conditions of the community, information on the economic performance of the commercial and recreational fishing industries, etc.) and community feedback to create the plans.
Ken Bates—a longtime commercial fisherman and vice president of Humboldt Fishermen’s Marketing Association—says fishers have generally welcomed the effort.
“Fishermen have seen plans come and go and they’re always piecemeal. But the overall feeling is that Laurie’s project will be very positive for communities, planners, and city and county managers.”
Bates also believes the work may help bolster community relationships. “When I came to Eureka in 1970, you’d see fishermen meeting and talking in public spaces like cafes. As the industry shrank so did areas where they’d congregate and eventually they lost areas to socialize. A fishing fleet not connected with the public is at risk of being forgotten.
“My hope is that Laurie’s project will also look at the cultural aspects of fishing fleet and how the community interacts with the fishing community.”
Beyond fishers, the project benefits HSU students like Laura Casali (’12, Oceanography). She helped conduct interviews in 2014 and now, with support from the NOAA grant, is pursuing a master’s degree in Environment & Natural Resources Science and will help with outreach efforts in Shelter Cove, where she has lived for nearly 25 years.
“I’m part of this project because it is something that I know is going to benefit the fishing community here, and I’m going to school because has Laurie inspired and supported me,” she says.
Project team members include HSU professor Brian Tissot (Biology) and instructor William Fisher (Economics), and Joe Tyburczy of California Sea Grant. They will partner with Lisa Wise Consulting (a planning firm that helped develop similar plans for Morro Bay and Monterey) and local and federal government entities.