Sailing into the Unknown — Rough Seas Aheads

PCFFAAmerica’s commercial fishing families provide an invaluable service to all Americans. Often putting our lives at risk, we do so without unrealistic expectations. For the most part, we love what we do and prefer the dynamic and ever-changing ocean upon which we ply our trades.

We are conservationists; we are aware of changes underway in our environment (often long before scientists and managers notice them) and constantly adapting to them; we are passionate and committed to providing the world’s citizen’s with a highly regulated, sustainable source of protein; we are essential workers; we are community members; we are engaged in the management of our marine resources; we are your next door neighbors; we are story-tellers, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters. We are you.

As I began to put pen to paper on this column, the intent was to provide an update on offshore wind. I then recalled some recent conversations where state agency representatives working on offshore wind were shocked to learn of all the many other issues we are already facing which will impact our abilities to feed America. Many of our members are fearful that commercial fishing, as an industry, is not going to be viable for the long-term. But we have historically been resilient and resolute — and never have we needed those qualities more than today.

For the vast majority of Americans, the only access to the living marine resources within the United States Exclusive Economic Zone is through the seafood provided by America’s commercial fishermen and women. We harvest these resources for your benefit. We also believe there are serious social and environmental justice issues which are not being addressed with most of the items listed below. We call upon our decision-makers to recognize these issues and not selectively apply them when they fit a narrative.

As noted above, there are a number of issues which individually could, or collectively will, impact our ability to operate along the West Coast.

Offshore Wind

If the federal and state governments get their way, offshore wind farms are likely coming to waters near you. Off the coast of California, there are currently three areas being considered for offshore wind: (1) 399 square miles roughly 20-25 miles off the Central California coast; (2) 206.8 square miles roughly 17 miles off the Northern California coast; and (3) a two small demonstration projects roughly 2.5 miles off Point Arguello. But during a July 13 Bureau of Energy Management (BOEM)-California Intergovernmental Task Force Meeting, a slide was shared which showed “areas of interest” which appear to dwarf, in terms of square miles, the areas identified above.

There have been no Call Areas identified off the coast of Oregon as of late August, but they are expected to be announced imminently. It’s expected that there will be at least one Call Area below Cape Blanco; and potentially additional ones above that. In June, it was learned that offshore wind is likely coming off the coast of Washington as well. Grays Harbor Wind is proposing to develop a floating offshore wind project, generating up to 1 GW of energy, to be located 25 miles off the coast of Ocean Shores in the Quinault Indian Nation’s adjudicated usual and accustomed fishing areas.

Offshore Wave Energy

In February, the BOEM issued a research lease to Oregon State University for the PacWave South project, a proposed open ocean wave energy test center, to be located about six nautical miles off Newport, Oregon.

30 x 30 Initiatives

On Oct. 7, 2020, California Gov. Gavin Newsom executed Executive Order 82-20, establishing a goal of conserving “at least 30 percent of California’s land and coastal waters by 2030.” On Jan. 27, 2021, President Biden executed Executive Order 14008.  Section 216 of that Executive Order established a “goal of conserving at least 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030.”  Neither of the Executive orders defined “conserve.” Depending on how that term is defined, we could be facing additional areas where extractive fishing activities could be disallowed.

The California Natural Resources Agency hosted a workshop on Advancing 30 x 30: Conservation of Coastal Waters. In advance of that workshop, a summary document was presented which provided scientists’ thoughts on how 30 x 30 could be implemented in California’s coastal waters. The 30 x 30 Initiative has also been called an example of “environmental colonialism.” I encourage you all to read the January 25, 2021 Op-Ed in the Anchorage Daily News by Linda Behnken titled “Biden administration should steer clear of environmental colonialism” ( ).


Last year, an Aquaculture Opportunity Area (“AOA”) was established in the Southern California Bight. AOAs are defined as geographic areas that have been evaluated for their potential for sustainable commercial aquaculture. Selected areas are expected to support multiple aquaculture farm sites of varying types including finfish, shellfish, seaweed, or some combination of these farm types.

Since then, there has been increasing interest in using the AOA designation to establish offshore fin fish aquaculture (Pacific Ocean Aquafarm) in federal waters off San Diego, establish an expanded shellfish farm (Avalon Aquafarms) in federal waters off Long Beach, and establish a new shellfish farm (Ventura Shellfish Enterprise) in federal waters off Ventura.

Other Forms of Industrialization of Our Oceans

There are a number of rumored projects which we believe are in the conceptual development phase. These include offshore solar farms, server farms located under the ocean surface, fiber optic cable routes, etc.

Management Processes

These are not new. U.S. fisheries are amongst the most stringently managed in the world. Our fisheries are managed, for the most part, utilizing a bottom-up approach. The Pacific Fishery Management Council is a stakeholder-driven process and makes management recommendations to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).

NMFS then reviews the recommendations and approves them —or not—for management purposes. While we may not like a particular outcome, we cannot say our inputs weren’t heard or considered. As I type this, there are many stock assessment questions regarding commercially and recreationally important fish stocks off the California coast. But fishery stakeholders have been at the table, with a voice, throughout the process. Decisions may be made which are devastating to those fisheries later this year, but the decision-makers will make those decisions being fully informed.

Serious Implications

Each of the above ocean incursions will impact our ability to operate in terms of potential loss of access to important fishing grounds, increased competition for limited space in ports and harbors, management implications which could result from disruption of long running scientific surveys which inform stock assessments, etc. Cumulatively, these issues could result in the elimination of the commercial fishing industry as we know it.

What happens if fisheries off the U.S. West Coast, and California in particular, go away?

We will be more reliant on imported seafood. This means imported seafood harvested using much less selective gear types, with much less concern for environmental impacts, and a much higher carbon footprint per pound of seafood consumed. Fishing vessels operating off the California coast will have to comply with regulations limiting greenhouse gas causing emissions.  In addition to cleaner burning engines, our fleets tend to operate closer to shore than fleets of many importing nations. We are encouraged that more research is being undertaken to include the carbon footprint of fisheries into the definition of fishery sustainability.

Net conservation loss. When the Hawaiian longline fishery was shut down from 2001-2004 to protect endangered sea turtles, that fishery was a key source of swordfish supplying the fresh and frozen swordfish market in the U.S. As a result of that closure, imports soared, and effort internationally expanded. One study found that the U.S. closure actually resulted in “an additional 2,882 sea turtle interactions” as an unintended consequence. Increased reliance on foreign-sourced seafood is likely to have similar negative conservation impacts.

Changing the character of fishing communities. Many of the ports, harbors and communities along the West Coast, particularly in Northern California, are dependent on fishing, whether it be the economy built on seafood or the driver the fishing industry plays in tourism.  As fishing activity in ports lessens, there are less funds available for necessary maintenance and infrastructure which supports our operations. New opportunities which could exist under changing ocean conditions will be thwarted by lack of available port space or suitable infrastructure.

In short, if you aren’t at the table, you are on the menu!  Now more than ever, it is important for you to be informed and get engaged.

Your local associations need to be tracking each of these issues and developing strategies for how you will engage on those issues which are of concern to you and your membership. We need your help!

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 his email address:, or by cell phone at (415) 638-9730.