Op-Ed: The Value of Fishing Grounds on California’s North Coast

Ken Bates has fished commercially since 1969. He is an advocate for young fishermen and has represented fishing interests at state and local venues since 1983. His wife, Linda Hildebrand, is co-owner and fishing partner on the f/v Ironic.

Fishermen operating worldwide over the past 100 years have been continually challenged by the steady loss of fishing grounds caused by non-fishing ocean development and challenges from regulatory restrictions.

The list of these developments is massive—cable lanes, dumping grounds, oil and gas mining, military closures, fishery regulations, dredging, ocean-sewer outfalls, marine-protected areas, shipping lanes, etc. Wind-power projects are beginning to consume extensive tracts of coastal fishing grounds in Europe and now in the U.S.

With the approaching loss of thousands of miles of U.S. West Coast fishing grounds to offshore wind (OSW) development, the state of California’s permitting agency has begun asking about the value of California’s fishing grounds. The response is difficult and complex.

For a non-fisherman stuck at sea on a gray, cold, rough ocean, covered in white caps, a square mile of fishing grounds is a liability and something to endure. For a freighter or tanker en route to some distant destination, the same ocean mile is just another to tick off during the trip.

However, windy ocean areas also have the most dynamic biological activities. Thermal and nutrient boundaries caused by upwelling can transform areas from sterile blue deserts into ones with massive plankton blooms, complete with forage fish, whales, dolphins, birds and commercial fish species in harvestable amounts. These are the areas, while constantly in flux, in which fishermen.

For commercial fishermen, any given square mile of ocean fishing grounds can be individually, seasonally and over generations, highly valuable. Some of the fishing grounds with the highest value to fishermen are also the windiest. Wind power developers also think that these same areas have high value for their investments in offshore wind power projects.

These developers recently bid $4.5 billion for the privilege of siting their turbine arrays on East Coast fishing grounds. So, how much are those grounds worth to fishermen, coastal fishing communities and the country’s food security?

Before we look at individual North Coast fisheries, it might be best to get a feel for the cumulative value of those fisheries as a baseline and to better understand the long-term value and importance to California’s fishing economy.

The best and most current reporting on North Coast fisheries can be found in the California Coastal Commission staff report TH8a (January 24, 2022). In this report, commission researchers state that the recent average value of California North Coast fish landings (ex-vessel value) is $40 million. These landings constitute 26% of the state’s entire seafood harvest.

Also, keep in mind that this $40 million figure is what was paid to fishermen and does not include economic multipliers for processing, distribution and end-use sales, as well as all the ancillary businesses required to keep fishermen fishing.

Here are some case-by-case insights into the value of one-square mile of fishing grounds adjacent to the Humboldt wind energy area (WEA) in Northern California. Keep in mind that OSW developers presently believe that a floating-wind turbine anchored on the seafloor of the Humboldt community fishing grounds will require a one-square-mile area footprint per turbine.

Salmon Trolling

Ask any fisherman how many dollars’ worth of fish can be harvested from a square mile of fishing grounds. You will get some surprising numbers. A California salmon troller working a two-mile long “tack,” trolling four lines, 40 feet apart in an area containing harvestable numbers of salmon, can easily catch 40 to 80 fish per day.

A really great day’s fishing can yield a catch in excess of 150 fish. The average fishing day’s catch equates to 480 to 900 pounds at $10 per pound, or about a $7,000 paycheck for the day. Each “tack” amounts to .66 square miles of area, and it is reasonable to assume that if the fisherman tacks across this area ten times, he has fished about six square miles.

The square-mile average for that one boat on a single fishing day is $1,167.

Albacore Trolling

Let’s look at the average catch of a vessel fishing albacore tuna with “hook-and-line” gear. An albacore fisherman using eight trolled lines, working in mid-July on one square mile of area holding schools of “biting albacore” could reasonably catch 150 to 200 fish per day (a high catch rate with troll gear can exceed 1,000 fish per day).

If the fish each weigh on average of 12 lbs., then 200 fish times 12 pounds equals 2,400 lbs. Ex-vessel albacore prices average around $3,400 per ton. The value of the day’s catch within that square mile is equal to $4,080.

Albacore, Pole Caught

In the fall months, albacore schooling and feeding behavior changes, and these behavioral changes result in high catch rates for boats using “live bait” and poles.

The same square mile of ocean holding dense albacore schools could look like this: Four “stops” in the square-mile area in one day. Each “stop” yields 200 fish at 14 pounds (note – wide open “pole-and-line” fishing can easily produce two or three times this catch rate).

So, four stops times 200 fish equals 800 fish. At 14 pounds, this is equal to 11,200 pounds (5.6 short tons). At $3,400 per ton, this equals $19,040 for that one-mile area.

Live Bait

Ken Bates, along with his wife Linda Hildebrand, has fished commercially since 1969. He is an advocate for young fishermen and has represented fishing interests at state and local venues since 1983.

Fall albacore fishermen require “live bait,” and typically use anchovies. Humboldt Bay is the only protected and permitted location in Northern California/Southern Oregon where it is possible to catch this bait; estuaries in Oregon are closed to this activity.

The “bait hauler” in Humboldt Bay consists of two fishermen and a 32-foot boat designed to set and haul a 1,120-foot-long lampara bait net. Most of the fishing in Humboldt Bay takes place between the Coast Guard Station and the Samoa Bridge on the west side of the bay. Typically, the “bait hauler” will catch between 300 and 500 “scoops” of live anchovies per albacore boat.

Using a low average of 300 scoops, bait fishing in Humboldt Bay looks like this: 300 scoops at eight pounds per scoop equals 2,400 lbs. of live anchovies. The price per scoop is currently $6; 300 scoops at $6 equals $1,800 for the cost of the live bait for that one albacore bait boat.

That’s $1,800 for the two fishermen on the vessel making bait for the albacore boat, but here’s the kicker—good live bait “pole-and-line” fishing generally yields one ton of albacore per 12 scoops of anchovies. It is reasonable to expect to catch 25 tons of albacore with the load of live bait caught in Humboldt Bay.

The combination of fishing looks like this: Value of “live bait” for one vessel—$1,800. Value of albacore landed by the vessel using “live bait”—$85,000.

Humboldt Bay is also the proposed location for the siting of the assembly and storage of wind turbines destined for Northern California waters. The loss of the fishing areas inside of the bay caused by displacement from OSW development can have a major negative impact on fall albacore fishing coastwide.

Dungeness Crab

A Eureka Dungeness Crab fisherman setting 200 crab pots on one-square mile of crab grounds could easily expect to catch 15 crabs per pot on his first pull of the gear on opening day of crab season. Here is what that first day’s fishing looks like: 15 crabs per pot at a 1.75 pound average equals 26.25 pounds per pot; 200 pots times 26.25 lbs. equals a 5,250-pound catch at $4 per pound. Ex-vessel value equals $21,000.

If that same fisherman worked the same square mile of crab grounds for 60 fishing days over a 180-day period and caught an average of two crabs per pot, on a 200-pot string at $4 per pound, then the yield for the six-month season is $168,000. And adding in the opening day, the resulting value of this one mile area to that fisherman is $189,000.

Groundfish Longline

Before looking at trawl groundfish area values, another important gear type also harvesting a portion of the groundfish resource is “hook-and-line” bottom-contact longlining. A veteran longline fisherman operating a 60-foot steel longline vessel offered his fishing data for the summer of 2022. Let’s look at the results.

This fisherman and his crew fished 27 days as offshore weather permitted. Most of their fishing was in similar depths and areas as the anticipated OSW development in Humboldt and Del Norte counties. This fishing vessel made two “sets” of longline gear per day. Each set was 2.1 miles in length.

We will generally assume that this baited gear attracted sablefish from as far away as 300 feet on each side of the set. In reality, current velocity and direction may radically affect fish attraction to this gear, in that current running across the gear rather than parallel to the gear may cause no attraction of fish on the upcurrent side of the set gear.

Each set at 2.1 miles in length by 600 feet wide equates to 6.65 million square feet of “fishing ground interaction credit.” Each set is equal to four-tenths of one-square mile of grounds. At two sets per day the total affected fishing grounds equals eight-tenths of one square mile.

One set equals 2.1 miles in length times 600 feet of affected (utilized) fishing grounds; that equals .4 square miles, while two sets per day equals .8 square miles.

This vessel’s gross ex-vessel income for sablefish for 27 days fishing was $298,000.

The daily average: $298,000 divided by 27 days is $11,037/day; that also equates to .8 miles of affected fishing grounds, so what does a square mile of sablefish ground look like? If .8 square miles is equal to $11,037 then 1 square mile is equal to $13,796.

So, using this vessel’s season average of 54 sets, each at four-tenths of a square mile, the average value of sablefish harvested from each square mile in the summer of 2022 was $13,796.

What if this one vessel fished this area only once per season for 20 years and we did not account for inflation, etc. and only considered the 2022 value for this square mile? Twenty years times $13,796 per square mile equals $275,920, and this is only one boat of many that harvest sablefish.

Bottom Trawl Fisheries

Okay, let’s look at the local trawl fishery off Eureka. These fishermen are responsible for the bulk of groundfish landings which keep fish processors in business. Here is catch data from a 54-foot trawl vessel, one of Northern California’s smaller vessels. 

In February 2022, this vessel made a three-hour tow just north of the Humboldt Wind Energy Area (WEA). On the best day of the year operating in perfect conditions, the door spread of this trawl is less than 300 feet. The three-hour tow covered six lineal miles of fishing grounds, which equates to one third of a square mile of grounds fished. The results: $9,000 ex-vessel value of the tow’s catch.

In March, the same fisherman made seven tows over a 48-hour fishing trip. Each tow was 5 miles long, and again less than 300 feet wide. This means that the seven tows over 48 hours covered two square miles of grounds. The trip ex-vessel value was just under $50,000. 

To get an average of these two trips: trip 1–one third square mile at $9,000 equals $27,000 per square mile; trip 2–two square miles at $50,000 equals $25,000 per square mile. So, $27,000 plus $25,000 divided by two equals $26,000 per square mile.

Let’s just say that these fishermen only fished that location six times in any given year. Six times $26,000 equals $156,000 of value for that one square mile for just one fishery. 

The lost value of that same square mile of trawl grounds to offshore wind power over a 20- year period when adjusted for federal cost-of-living (COLA), a factor of 1.25%, looks like this: more than
$3.5 million of lost fishing opportunity for just this one fishery.

Interestingly, the installers and operators of submarine and subsea electrical transmission cables ask that “bottom contact” fishing gears (trawls, traps pots and long lines) not be set or operated within one-half nautical mile on either side of a cable route.

Based on the value of “bottom trawl” grounds alone, a cable crossing through 20 linear nautical miles would impact almost $520,000 dollars’ worth of trawl-fishing grounds annually! 

If one adds in another five miles of cable lane through the Dungeness crab grounds whose yearly value is about $940,000, fishing communities are facing harvest losses nearing
$1.5 million in for a 25-mile cable path.

Looking ahead, the proposed Humboldt WEA is about 200 square miles. Twenty years of trawl fishing loss in the Humboldt WEA amounts to more than $70 million—and that’s just trawl fisheries inside the WEA.

All fishermen and fisheries will have to give turbine arrays and export cable lanes a wide berth in order to avoid damage to vessels and gear, making the actual fishing area sacrificed to OSW even larger.

Who Have We Left Out?

In the bottom-contact trawl gear category we have not covered the Pink Shrimp trawl fishery, which operates throughout the spring and summer. Other such gear are the “trap fisheries,” which include Hagfish, Coon Stripe shrimp, Spot Prawns and Sablefish. In the “hook-and-line” fisheries, we did not provide economic data for vessels targeting rockfish, Pacific Halibut and other “bottom fish.”

We also left out sport fishing, the commercial charter fleet and the California Squid fleet, which in 2014 caught nearly five million pounds of market squid at .50 per pound in an area now occupied by fiber-optic cables.

The Impacts

It’s evident that the loss of “fishing grounds” impacts fishing communities and fishing businesses—e.g. fishermen, crews and their families. But how can we better gauge and understand those financial impacts?

To date, the best effort to quantify negative financial impacts to fishing businesses of all sizes comes from the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy (advocacy.sba.gov) in August 2022. The agency responded to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s June 2023 “Guidelines for Mitigating Impacts to Commercial and Recreational Fisheries on the Outer Continental Shelf.” 

Authored by Major L. Clark, deputy chief counsel, and Prianka P. Sharma , assistant chief counsel, the SBA response should be required reading for all state and federal agency staff working to better understand OSW impacts to small fishing businesses. What jumps out is the considerable disparity and additional financial hardship dumped on smaller fishing businesses.

To paraphrase the SBA comments (represented in Table 1, U.S. Fishing Industry):

A fishing business with a yearly gross of $1 to $2 million taking a $10,000 income loss from fishing ground displacement will have a 0.6% negative revenue loss that year. The impact of that same $10,000 revenue loss to a fishing family grossing between $100,000 and $499,000 is 3.9% of their yearly gross. If the fishing family’s gross income averages $50,000, then that $10,000 loss represents 18.8% of their entire yearly income.

Clearly, the greatest negative impacts from fishing grounds loss and displacement by OSW development fall squarely on the shoulders of small fishing family businesses, those least likely to adapt, relocate or prevail over the long term.

The Results

What does this mean? Someone unfamiliar with commercial fishing might look at these “per square mile” values and better understand that a fisherman can make a good living, feed his family and support the families of his crew. This fisherman’s catch supports fish plant workers, wholesale fish distribution networks, restaurants and markets, and all of the ancillary businesses that fishermen rely on to keep them fishing.

But to an international wind power or cable developer these ocean fishing ground values look like peanuts. Fishing communities rely on access to the limited areas of community fishing grounds to pay bills, provide sustainable seafood to the country at large and to bank on the long-term security of traditional fisheries to provide for an “at sea” and shoreside workforce vital to coastal communities.

But here’s what’s important—fishermen are not asking for more, they are only asking not to lose access to what is left of California’s fishing grounds.  

Ken Bates has fished commercially since 1969, first in San Pedro and out of the port of Eureka since 1974. He is an advocate for young fishermen and has represented fishing interests at state and local venues since 1983. His wife, Linda Hildebrand, is co-owner and fishing partner on the f/v Ironic. Together they fish for salmon and anchovies and volunteer with the California Fishermen’s Resiliency Association, a 501 (c)(3) Mutual Benefit Corporation with the goal of protecting fishing communities from the impacts of offshore wind.