Extreme Ups, Downs for California and Hawaii Fisheries

Market squid was the top 2023 commercial species landed by weight in California. Photo: T. Nguyen, California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

California and Hawaii’s commercial fishing industries saw substantial activity—both good and bad—in 2023, and this year looks to be another mixed bag.

The Golden and Aloha states saw dramatic fishery closures, overfished species and management changes, a new fishery aimed at improving West Coast access to a sought-after species and some important wins and losses on catch limits and fishing agreements.

Read on for a recap of some of the more notable season closures, new regulations and fishery changes.


There was a lot of big news for commercial fisheries last year, California Department of Fish and Wildlife Marine Regional Manager Craig Shuman said in the department’s annual “By the Numbers” report.

He called 2023 “a year of extremes.” Most notably, on April 6 of last year, the Pacific Fishery Management Council unanimously recommended a full closure of the state’s commercial and sport ocean salmon seasons. That “weighed heavily” on everyone’s minds, Shuman said.

The challenges were compounded in August with an in-season action to significantly curtail nearshore groundfish opportunities, he added, which was “another devastating blow” to California Tribes, coastal fishing communities, commercial fishermen and recreational anglers. 

“While these catastrophic events rightfully seized most of our collective attention, there were several other positive events that are no less extraordinary,” he remarked.

Shuman pointed to the 2022-23 commercial lobster fishery ending in March at its highest volume and non-adjusted value of all time. That’s a testament, he said, to the hard-working commercial fishing fleet and the sustainable management of the lobster fishery under the state’s Spiny Lobster Fishery Management Plan.

According to the 2023 numbers report, commercial fishermen brought in just over 1 million pounds of California spiny lobster last year with an ex-vessel value of $21.5 million.

In other notable numbers, more than 52.27 million pounds of market squid were landed in California, with an ex-vessel value of about $30.4 million.

“Looking ahead, we should expect continued challenges as we adapt and respond to our changing climate,” Shuman remarked, but said he’s confident the CDFW marine region staff, along with California Tribes, partners and stakeholders, will rise to meet any challenges.

“I also hope we will be able to create the space to enjoy our successes, big and small, as we work together to sustainably manage California’s marine resources,” Shuman said.

Repeat Closure for Ocean Salmon Fisheries

Repeating their 2023 decision, the PFMC on April 10 unanimously recommended closing California’s commercial ocean salmon fisheries through the end of
the year.

California ocean salmon fisheries will be closed in 2024. Photo courtesy of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

West Coast Chinook and coho stocks in 2024 look to be “a mixed bag,” with both low and high points compared to last year, PFMC officials noted in an April 10 press release.

“The forecasts for Chinook returning to California rivers this year are again very low,” Council Chair Brad Pettinger said in a statement. “Despite improved drought conditions, the freshwater environment that contributed to these low forecasted returns may still be impacting the overall returns of Chinook.”

While estimates for both Klamath River and Sacramento River fall Chinook are a bit higher than 2023, this year’s ocean salmon seasons will have significantly reduced opportunity compared to historical seasons.

“After the closure last year, this decision is not an easy one to make,” CDFW Director Charlton Bonham said in a statement. “While we have been enjoying back-to-back rainy and wet winters this year and last, the salmon that will benefit from these conditions aren’t expected to return to California until around 2026 or 2027.”

“The current salmon for this year’s season were impacted by the difficult environmental factors present three to five years ago,” he explained.

Officials reported that ongoing issues related to drought and climate change are continuing to impact the state’s salmon stocks. The number were also previously affected by severe wildfires, and associated impacts to spawning and rearing habitat, harmful algal blooms and ocean forage shifts.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, commonly known as NOAA Fisheries, took in-season action in March to close commercial salmon fisheries in several management areas in Northern California through May 15.

Following the salmon fishery closure recommendation in April, CDFW worked to expedite a request for federal fishery resource disaster determination. A similar request from Gov. Gavin Newsom was approved in 2023: NOAA ultimately allocated about $20.63 million to CDFW.

Nearshore Groundfish Fishery Changes

NOAA Fisheries announced Dec. 14 that the agency had determined that quillback rockfish off California are overfished. The determination is based on the 2021 stock assessment of the species. The finding was reported to PFMC so that both groups can work on a rebuilding plan to return the stock to a healthy population size. Until 2022, quillback rockfish were managed collectively with other nearshore rockfish species, not at the species level.

“This is the first time in over 10 years that a Pacific Coast groundfish stock has been declared overfished,” according to the NMFS.

Although the rebuilding plan is not legally required to be implemented for two years, moving ahead with 2025-26 management measures without it would make it challenging to approve the specifications, officials explained in December.

“In order to meet the terms of a rebuilding plan, restricted management measures in several groundfish sectors, and for other co-occurring species, will be necessary,” they wrote.

On Jan. 26, CDFW proposed emergency changes for the commercial nearshore groundfish fishery. The Office of Administrative Law approved the new regulations, which went into effect
Feb. 12.

The action created a California Groundfish Restriction Area that extends north of 36 degrees north latitude (near Point Lopez) to the California/Oregon border, and between the new 20-fathom boundary line and the shore.

New trip limits were established for the commercial take of both shallow and deeper nearshore rockfish (except for quillback rockfish) and California scorpionfish in state waters outside the restriction area.

Officials determined that quillback rockfish off California is overfished. Photo: California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The measures are being taken in an effort to minimize interaction with quillback rockfish, which as of 2023 is a prohibited species in California that cannot be selectively avoided, and must be protected by limiting or prohibiting fishing in certain depths or areas, according to CDFW.

Groundfish Fishery Management

Regulations to implement amendment 32 to the Pacific Coast Groundfish Fishery Management Plan went into effect on Jan. 1. The rule includes a “suite of changes” to non-trawl sector area management measures seaward of California and Oregon for commercial and recreational groundfish fisheries, according to NMFS. It also impacts the non-tribal directed commercial Pacific halibut fishery.

In California, amendment 32 regulations include:

  • Allowing increased fishing access with specific gear types to the non-trawl rockfish conservation area for the commercial groundfish limited entry fixed gear sector and vessels that gear switch under the trawl individual fishing quota program.
  • Modifying gear restrictions in the non-trawl rockfish conservation areas for all non-trawl commercial groundfish sectors.
  • Moving the seaward boundary of the non-trawl conservation areas to 75 fathoms for all non-trawl commercial groundfish sectors and the directed commercial Pacific halibut fishery.
  • Creating new groundfish conservation areas, including new yelloweye conservation areas seaward of Oregon and groundfish exclusion areas seaward of Southern California.
  • Removing cowcod conservation area restrictions seaward of Southern California for all groundfish commercial and recreational non-trawl sectors.
  • Enabling the use of block area closures to control the catch of groundfish for all commercial non-trawl sectors.

Amendment 32 aims to provide increased fishing access, while still meeting the fishery management plan’s conservation objectives.

The action represents more than two decades of conservation work and opens commercial and recreational fishing areas that have been closed since the early 2000s to protect certain species of overfished rockfish, according to NOAA Fisheries.

Although officials note that there are still conservation challenges and certain areas will remain closed to protect more vulnerable species and critical habitats like rocky reefs, corals and sponges.

“This milestone is a testament to the success of long-term conservation efforts and reflects a shared commitment to responsibly steward our marine resources,” NOAA Fisheries West Coast Regional Administrator Jen Quan said in a statement. “It marks a significant step toward a sustainable future for West Coast groundfish fisheries and the communities that rely on them.”

New Swordfish Fishery

Last year also saw a new West Coast fishery created that allows swordfish to be caught with deep-set buoy gear. The new fishery utilizes the swordfish’s deep-diving habits and minimizes bycatch.

NOAA Fisheries approved the final regulations for this new fishery under an amendment to the federal Fishery Management Plan for Highly Migratory Species. The regulations went into effect June 7, 2023.

Recent federal legislation phases out the use of drift gillnets (the gear primarily used to catch the lucrative species) within five years.

West Coast commercial swordfish landings peaked in the 1980s, but have since declined due to restrictions on gillnet fishing, according to NOAA Fisheries statistics. The Hawaii-based longline fishery that catches swordfish has primarily taken over the high-value market.

Deep-set buoy gear increases access for vessels on the West Coast to pursue swordfish.

“We want options for the fleet to fish for our healthy West Coast swordfish stock at a time when most of the swordfish we can buy in the store comes from abroad,” NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region Assistant Regional

Officials closed commercial Dungeness crab fishery off the coast of California in April due to an increased risk of whale entanglement. Photo: C. Juhasz, California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Administrator for Sustainable Fisheries Ryan Wulff said. “We all benefit from greater domestic production, because we know the fish is caught safely and sustainably, consumers get more choices and our local communities benefit.”

Dungeness Crab Fishery Closure

Fish and Wildlife closed some zones and limited other zones for the commercial Dungeness crab fishery off the coast of California in April due to an increased risk of whale entanglement.

A statewide fleet advisory went into effect to instruct crabbers to avoid getting gear in areas where whales are present and follow established best practices.

Officials reported in mid-March that aerial and vessel surveys showed humpback whale numbers increasing as they returned to forage off the coast. The commercial season change, along with trap restrictions for recreational crabbers, were aimed at reducing the entanglement risk for the migrating whales.

An emergency regulation action approved in early March allowed Dungeness crab vessels to retrieve an unlimited number of lost, damaged, abandoned or otherwise derelict commercial crab traps in certain fishing zones.

Hawaii: Bigeye Tuna Catch Limit

A revised conservation and management measure approved at the 20th annual meeting of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission on Dec. 11 included an increase in the bigeye tuna catch limit for Hawaii’s longline fishery.

The measure is effective from 2024 through 2026 and raises the catch limit from 3,554 to 6,554 metric tons.

“This came with the understanding that Hawaii vessels are well-managed, fish sustainably and (are) a part of a niche fresh fish market,” Council Executive Director Kitty Simonds said.

International regulations for skipjack and yellowfin tuna fishing also are covered in the measure.

However, the U.S. failed to retain a key provision in the tropical tuna conservation and management measure that allows for the transfer of portions of catch to the Hawaii longline fishery. This is done through specified fishing agreements, funds from which supported U.S. Pacific Territories fishery development initiatives.

“Although this is a win for the Hawaii longline fishery, it is a devastating loss for the Pacific Territories,” said Sylvan Igisomar, secretary for the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Department of Lands and Natural Resources.

Modified Seabird Interaction Measures

On Oct. 17, NOAA Fisheries published a proposal to modify seabird interaction mitigation measures in the Hawaii pelagic deep-set (tuna) longline fishery. The final rule went into effect April 1.

The action requires vessels stern-setting above 23 degrees north latitude to use a tori line (bird scaring streamer) instead of the previously required thawed, blue-dyed bait and strategic offal discharge.

This rule, which does not apply to shallow- or side-setting vessels, is based on Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council recommendations. The intent is to reduce albatross interactions while also streamlining fishing operations and fishery management.

An amended regulation establishes new restrictions on the commercial harvest and sale of uhu. Photo: Lindsey Kramer/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“The council’s recommended changes were a result of a multi-year collaborative effort with fishermen, scientists and fishery managers to improve techniques for avoiding seabird interactions in the largest domestic bigeye tuna longline fishery in the United States,” Simonds said.

New Kala, Uhu Regulations

On Dec. 8, the Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources approved amendments to Hawaii Administrative Rules (HAR) to promote sustainable harvest of important reef fish.

The action modifies HAR regulations on the taking and selling of several important herbivorous reef fish (manini, kole, kala and uhu) and Kona crab.

For commercial fisheries, the amendment establishes new restrictions on the commercial harvest and sale of kala, including requiring commercial kala fishers to first obtain a $100 annual commercial kala fishing permit, setting a commercial annual catch limit for kala of 15,000 pounds, and requiring commercial marine dealers who sell kala to register with Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources as commercial kala dealers.

The action also established similar restrictions on the commercial harvest and sale of uhu, including the requirements to obtain a $100 commercial usu fishing permit and for commercial marine dealers who sell uhu to register with Land and Natural Resources.

It also prohibits the commercial harvest of any uhu species other than redlip parrotfish and sets an annual uhu catch limit of 30,000 pounds commercially.    

Sara Hall has 15 years of experience at several regional and national magazines, online news outlets, and daily and weekly newspapers, where coverage has  included reporting on local harbor activities, marine-based news, and regional and state coastal agencies. Her work has included photography, writing, design and layout.