“Once we’re gone, we’re not coming back.”

PCFFAThis month’s column is a bit different. While contemplating what to write about for this month’s issue, Mike had a conversation with longtime California commercial fisherman John Koeppen.

John has seen the ups and downs of our profession and has been actively involved in fisheries management processes for many years. He told Mike of a topic he had long been considering writing about, and after further discussion, they came up with the following:

“Once we’re gone, we’re not coming back.”

I read this newspaper column headline recently and thought this article must be about the West Coast’s small-boat commercial fishing fleet. But no, it was about small, family-owned farms. While reading the article, I recognized an uncanny thread of similarities in the demise of the small family-owned farm and the small-boat commercial fishing operation.

Farming, of course, has different obstacles, a different industry make-up and different reasons for the loss of small family farms. For our farmers, a few large agricultural corporations are buying up small-farm operations or simply pushing them out of business. A few large agricultural distributors/buyers heavily influence prices and buying patterns.  There are the few independent farming operations which temporarily find a way to surmount these obstacles with creative marketing via the Internet or through farm-to-table models to niche buyers. But the theme remains the same. The small independent farmer and fisherperson are slowly leaving their profession with no one to fill the void.

Let’s be clear: I want to address the small-boat commercial fishing fleet that operates vessels of 40 feet or less, and that participate primarily in the salmon troll, crab and/or black cod fisheries. Let us look at the economic impact the small commercial fleet has on the overall financial well-being of coastal communities and what individual fishermen/women need to do to sustain their businesses and lifestyles.

My hope is to prevent the collapse of the small-boat fleet. Running around the ocean, chasing the next bite or the next full pot got in my blood. I can’t fully describe the beauty of the sun rising or setting, but its spectacular shades of red, orange and yellow jump out from a clear blue sky. The beach-based person can’t feel the thrill of seeing blue whales, gigantic sun fish or acres of porpoise.

Nor can they appreciate the feeling of a full-on bite or what it took to be there at the right time, in the right place. There are the undeniably scary adrenaline-rush moments when a wave crashes through the windows or a whale breaches in front of the boat. If this life was easy, everyone would do it.

It’s a lifestyle that is rooted in the heritage of the West Coast. Let’s save it. It is unraveling because the remaining participants aren’t engaged enough. The small-boat fishing community is not pivoting to new distribution models or fisheries. It isn’t thinking long term about its future or the future of those who may follow. And it is not standing up to be heard.

Once upon a time in a universe far, far away, thousands of shore-based jobs depended on the small boat fleet’s ability to harvest the ocean year around. There were haul-out facilities in every port.  Marine electronic services were readily available. Chandlery and fishing gear stores were in every port and harbor.  Before the Rockfish Conservation Areas, there were hundreds of jobs in nearly every port for fileting and processing the seafood we delivered, and consumers could get their hands on the freshest fish to be found. The support industries the small boat fleet once utilized year around are almost gone.  The vendors have gone out of business or pivoted to related businesses.

The small boat commercial fishing fleet, in large part, did not change its operational model. Because their business models did not change, they lost visibility among those who influence policy and management of their fisheries, harbors and communities. There is no simple answer to finding resources and alternative markets. The individual boat operator needs a community of like production vessels in all ports to exchange ideas and support each other.

One remedy is having coastal communities and harbor districts explore creative ways to attract the general public to their harbors, within the confines of their risk assessments and operating budgets, thus promoting dock sales directly from the small boat operator. There are a couple of ports with models that work for them—San Diego, Santa Barbara and Half Moon Bay for example. We need more.  The point is you have to engage your local community and build relationships with port/harbor staff and the public who will be your buyers.

COVID times enhanced the opportunity to develop internet-based “boat-to-home” marketing platforms. Supporting the small scale local buyer who markets a high-end product to customers adds value to our product, as long as quality is preserved. More buyers or direct sales to the consumer can influence competitive pricing, thus increasing the probability of your financial survival. Reach out to those who have some experience or offer support resources.

What do you need to do to save your profession for yourself and future generations of commercial harvesters? You have to stand up and be counted. You have to engage on a local level to be heard on a regional scale.

You don’t have to go to PCFFA or Pacific Fishery Management Council meetings to be heard, but you need to support those who do. You need to be part of the local fishermen’s association and voice your thoughts and concerns. Elect local representation for your association who will participate in regional platforms like PCFFA. When asked, you need to submit a public comment whether it be written or verbal. Trust me, every voice counts. The reason we’re in the predicament we’re in is not enough voices are heard by the agencies and decision-making bodies that shape policies and regulations.

Ask yourself when was the last time you attended a harbor district meeting, city council meeting or fishermen’s association meeting? COVID accelerated the public’s access to regional fisheries management through video platforms. It is easier now than ever to stand up and be counted. Have you?  If everyone does his/her part, the answers to how to maintain access to ocean resources and maximize revenue become apparent.

And why wouldn’t you stand up? It’s your life, your livelihood, your future. It’s your income.

How can you make good business decisions without knowing what challenges stand in your way or opportunities that might be coming? Do you rely on “dock talk” for information? You cannot stand by thinking someone else will do it, or your slip mate has all the answers. Reasons like “I don’t like to speak in a public forum,” or “I can’t write good,” or I don’t have the time, I have kids to support,” are not going to solve the problem or secure your future.

You must engage! Be part of the conversation! Be part of the solution so there is a future for you and the next generation. Your local association or regional platforms can point you in the right direction and try to make the transition from observer to participant easier. Turn on your computer and listen to a port or harbor commission meeting, a Fish and Game Commission meeting, a Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting, etc. You have a voice, one that needs to be heard.

Because “once we’re gone, we’re not coming back.”

John Koeppen is a commercial fisherman based out of Santa Cruz, California. Until this year, he was a long-standing member of the Pacific Fishery Management Council’s Salmon Advisory Subpanel and remains actively involved in fisheries management issues.

Mike Conroy is the Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), and its sister organization, the Institute for Fisheries Resources. He can be reached at mike@ifrfish.org or by cell phone, (415) 638-9730.