Fishermen's News - The Advocate for the Commercial Fisherman

Commercial Fishing's Contribution to Santa Barbara Economy

Working waterfront provides socioeconomic net on the 'American Riviera'


Mike McCorkle, right, who has plied the ocean for nearly seven decades, has fished from Santa Barbara since 1964, gleaning halibut, ridgeback shrimp, sea cucumbers, salmon and mackerel aboard F/V Pieface and F/V Theresa Ann. McCorkle was one of several commercial fishermen who contributed their insights to the economic impact study. Photo courtesy of CFSB.

Beautiful, bountiful, and bustling with activity, Santa Barbara is a quintessential picturesque southern California coastal community.

Located about 90 nautical miles northwest of Los Angeles on a 30-mile stretch of south-facing California coastline in a region dubbed the "American Riviera" (because the climate and geography mimic part of the Mediterranean Sea coast known as the Riviera), Santa Barbara is a popular tourism and resort destination with its own trademark style. On any given day, the city's harbor area teems with people at play – and at work.

Amid the hubbub, commercial fishermen steadfastly ply their trade, tending to the ceaseless tasks required for harvesting and marketing seafood from ocean to table.

Tourists watching fishing vessels arrive or depart or offload their cargo are unaware of the fisheries' contributions to the local economy beyond the fresh seafood platters served in Santa Barbara's restaurants and bistros, or sold directly to consumers, either at seafood markets or straight off the boats. Even many local residents fail to realize the full impact of commercial fisheries within a diverse city economy that features a robust service sector, along with opportunities in health care, education, finance, technology, manufacturing, and agriculture.

Commercial Fishermen of Santa Barbara (CFSB), a nonprofit organization established in 1971 to advocate for economically and biologically healthy oceans, fisheries and fishing communities, collaborated with the venerable philanthropic Santa Barbara Foundation (SBF) to underwrite an economic impact report to highlight commercial fishing's relevance in the region. Chris Voss, CFSB executive director and longtime commercial lobsterman who fishes from the aptly-named F/V Opportunity, called the study "a critical first step" toward helping the CFSB deal with the challenges and issues commercial fishermen face, as well as creating strong partnerships with government, business, and community leaders.

Established in 1928, the SBF, which actively supports all types of community organizations and efforts, provided funding for the fisheries study conducted by San Luis Obispo-based Lisa Wise Consulting LWC), a land-use planning and economics firm that completed a similar analysis for Morro Bay, California in 2013.

"Our local working harbor and biologically rich channel provide an important food source for the region and the world," noted Sharyn Main, senior director of community investments for SBF. "How that resource is managed is important for the health of the environment, and the many species it supports, as well as for the longevity of the fisheries."

Chasing the Ocean's Bounty

Due in part to the convergence of warm southern water and cooler northern water in the Southern California Bight, California Department of Fish and Wildlife officials say about 550 species of fish either inhabit or traverse the Santa Barbara region's offshore ocean. The sea near Point Conception, just north of Santa Barbara, and the Santa Barbara Channel provides spawning and rearing areas for 64 species of commercial fish and shellfish throughout the year.

Sandwiched between the steeply rising Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean and protected from severe weather and waves by four of California's Channel Islands lying offshore, Santa Barbara remains a key center for commercial fishing, supporting a working waterfront with a well-protected 1,139-slip harbor and a productive commercial fishing fleet that fluctuates between 150 and 190 vessels, depending on the fishing season and other factors.

Part of California's fishing heritage, these commercial fishermen – like their counterparts elsewhere – face incredible odds, navigating against a rising tide of harvest regulations and restrictions and taking what the sea offers them in return. Many note they are small business owners, plying their trades alone or with a few employees, although the number of individual or small-group vessel owners continues to dwindle as larger operators consolidate fleets and pursue higher market shares. To remain viable, many fishermen pursue multiple commercial species, employing what some call "portfolio management" (otherwise known as diversification) in response to market demand and other factors.

Most say it's becoming more and more difficult to turn a profit. Yet Santa Barbara remains, according to the economic impact report released in April 2015, "one of the top performing commercial fishing communities in California."

By the Numbers

The report assessed landings, earnings, price per pound, number of vessels operating in the harbor, number of trips made, presence of critical marine infrastructure and services, and the state and federal regulatory setting from 1980 to 2013.

"Like all commercial fishing ports in California, Santa Barbara has come under increasing pressure from higher return uses on the waterfront and coastline gentrification, competition from inexpensive foreign imports, rising costs of inputs (fuel, rents, labor, supplies), as well as increasing and complicated regulations," the report noted. "Despite these challenges, Santa Barbara commercial fishermen have maintained a strong economic presence due to their hard work, ingenuity, and collective knowledge."

Between 1980 and 2013, the port's commercial fishermen reeled in landings worth $382.5 million in earnings at the dock, an annual average of $11.3 million in to-the-vessel value. The fisheries rebounded from a low of $7.3 million in 2001 to $10.9 million in 2013, the highest earnings since 1999 – a welcome trend, although the tally fell well short of the all-time high of $20.6 million in 1994.

Ex-vessel value, the report noted, is "a key indicator of economic performance," because such earnings "are reinvested in the community through wages for deckhands and dockworkers, at the processing plant, fuel and ice facilities, and throughout the distribution chain, as well as spending at the boatyard, on local mechanic and technician contractors, and through slip fees and offloading fees."

In 2013, Santa Barbara was the 11th-ranked port in California's annual $279 million commercial fishing industry, gleaning the highest earnings in the state for seven species: California spiny lobster ($3.3 million), red sea urchin ($3.3 million), red rock crab ($869,000), yellow rock crab ($399,000), giant red sea cucumber ($378,000), white sea bass ($316,000), and grass rockfish ($128,000). While Santa Barbara's three regional competitors – Port Ventura, Port Hueneme and Port Oxnard – net higher annual earnings, they rely mainly on market squid and sardines. Santa Barbara's more diverse catch - which also includes California halibut, sablefish, red abalone, ridgeback prawns, swordfish, black cod, salmon, lingcod, ridgeback shrimp, cabazon, mussels, oysters, squid, and more – is considered one of its greatest strengths, giving fishermen more flexibility to adapt to and weather market shifts and regulatory changes.

Overall landings during the past three-and-one-half decades reached 307 million pounds, averaging 9.1 million pounds per year, with a high of 17.1 million in 1981 and a low of 5.1 million in 1998. Landings have remained stable with an upward trend since 2008.

Average prices for all species since 1980 weighed in at $1.24 per pound, ranging from a low of 78 cents in 1991 to a high of $2.14 in 1995. Average price per pound has risen consistently during the past several years, from $1.03 in 2007 to $1.68 in 2013. California spiny lobster is by far Santa Barbara's most valuable species, with an average annual price of $11.07 per pound. Prices peaked at $19.14 per pound in 2013, although some fishermen claim they netted as much as $23.75 per pound.

"Commercial fishermen attribute much of the recent increase in lobster prices to demand from China," the report stated.

Their overall success, Voss and others notes, derives from the fishermen's involvement in the regulatory process - their main concern – and the community, simultaneously setting them apart and integrating them into a collaborative symbiosis with the city's leaders, agencies, businesses, and organizations.

Behind the Numbers

"Commercial fishermen in Santa Barbara have a history of adapting to changing economic, regulatory, and market conditions, and have built a resilient foundation on a diversity of species caught on a range of habitats with widely different gear types," the report consultants noted.

Operating within "one of the strictest regulatory settings in the world," fishermen say they face state and federal regulations and restrictions – fishery management plans, stock assessment and fishery evaluations, strict reporting requirements, spatial and seasonal closures, gear restrictions, size and sex restrictions, and limited entry programs – for each of the 25 to 30 they pursue. Looming offshore is the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary featuring a network of marine protected areas, 11 no-harvest marine reserves, and two marine conservation areas allowing limited take of lobster and pelagic fish like tuna. The South Coast Marine Protected Area established in 2012, extends from Point Conception to the border with Mexico, encompassing 2,500 square miles of ocean in 19 marine reserves, more than 30 marine conservation areas, and two special closure areas.

Facing ever-dwindling territories, Voss and fellow fishermen immerse themselves in the regulatory processes, start to finish, to be sure their perspectives are at least heard, if not always heeded. CFSB works with other fishing organizations - among them the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, California Lobster and Trap Fishermen's Association, Southern California Trawlers Association, and California Sea Urchin Commission - to deal with broader commercial fishing issues. Santa Barbara fishers played a key role in developing the newly-forged California spiny lobster fishery management plan, and provided input to the California Fish and Game Commission to assess and manage the red sea urchin fishery. Many say they also collaborate regularly in marine science research.

Just as vital, if not more so, are their connections to and relationships with the local and regional community. Fishing families maintain a strong social network integrated into the overall Santa Barbara community. Voss said CFSB represents local fishermen through presentations at schools and participation in public events like the annual Santa Barbara Harbor and seafood Festival, the city's signature autumn event. Coinciding with the lobster season opening, the festival involves a collaborative effort by the city, CFSB, Santa Barbara Harbor Merchants Association, and the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum. Such efforts, along with their "consistent economic performance," have helped commercial fishers maintain an alliance with the city that gives them access to critical services – ice, fuel, parking, slips and piers, offloading equipment, and boatyard and haul-out facility – all within a working waterfront next to a well-dredged harbor.

Fishermen say forging and strengthening those local ties is a key aspect of their socioeconomic future, especially in a city of 91,000 folks (metro region population of nearly 400,000) awash in potential marketing opportunities.

Diversity Through Local Markets

"Local fishermen serve a wide array of market types that include farmer's markets, local retailers, specialty suppliers in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and markets throughout the US and Asia," the impact report noted. "Diversity in markets reduces reliance on any single, localized economic climate, shift in consumer preference, currency or trade policy, and is characteristic of a sustainable industry."

Still, Voss said "not enough of the fish caught locally is consumed locally," so fishermen hoped to "raise awareness of what we catch, in what quantity, and at what time of year" with the economic report.

commercial fishing navigates at the leading edge of tourism in places like Morro Bay and Santa Barbara, where fishermen can create local demand and boost tourism by trumpeting the availability of fresh local seafood.

The Santa Barbara Fishermen's Market on the waterfront is a weekly direct outlet for commercial fishermen, and marketing programs such as Community seafood and a University of California -Santa Barbara (UCSB) spinoff called Salty Girl seafood, Inc. are making needed connections among fishermen, consumers and restaurants.

Founded and directed by Sarah Rathbone, a Cape cod native with a marine fisheries management background and experience as a full-time crew member aboard the lobster boat F/V March Gale, Community seafood delivers fresh seafood direct to consumers, who sign up for deliveries on designated days and agree to accept whatever is the catch of the day. Rathbone spawned her venture after realizing "the expansive and unnecessary gap between the people who catch the fish and the people who love to eat it."

Two other "salty girls" from UCSB also saw the need for connecting markets to fishermen. In 2014, co-founders Norah Eddy and Laura Johnson created an online marketplace to make it easier for chefs and restaurant managers to connect directly to fishermen to buy sustainable, traceable seafood. The idea, say the salty girls, is to "take the fish market to" the restaurants, and facilitate fishermen's ability to market directly. For fishermen, the ability to sell directly to an end user gleans higher prices and profit margins, making the extra effort required to prepare smaller portions or sell in smaller lots pay off. Developing connections with chefs, restaurant owners, and others along the seafood chain also leads to better understanding of consumer demands and market needs.

Mike McCorkle, who has plied the ocean for nearly seven decades, and Stephanie Mutz, who has fished commercially for seven years, were among the commercial fishers involved with the economic impact study.

Chris Voss, who fishes for California spiny lobster out of Santa Barbara harbor, is executive director of Commercial Fishermen of Santa Barbara (CFSB). Using grant funds from the Santa Barbara Foundation, CFSB commissioned a study and report on commercial fisheries and their contribution to the city and regional economy. Photo courtesy of Santa Barbara Foundation/Chris Voss.

McCorkle, who has fished from Santa Barbara since 1964, is one of the Community seafood suppliers, gleaning halibut, ridgeback shrimp, sea cucumbers, salmon and mackerel aboard F/V Pieface and F/V Theresa Ann. The unpredictability and novelty of fishing keeps him motivated.

"Every day on the ocean is different, and one learns how to read it," he says. But his chosen lifelong vocation has changed dramatically in the past 20 years or so, he adds, pointing to the struggles fishermen face, much of it due to regulations and restrictions that make it "a continual fight just to go outside the harbor to fish."

Mutz – marine scientist, educator, president of CFSB – heads up a two-person fishing operation with fellow commercial fisherman Harry Liquornik under the aegis Sea Stephanie Fish. They dive primarily for sea urchins, which they market directly to chefs and consumers, making fresh local seafood more accessible "to provide a healthy and balanced lifestyle with local resources."

Connecting harvesters to the community is also a direct way to help keep a venerable industry thriving in Santa Barbara.


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