MPA Update: Fishing Communities- an Integral Part of California’s Coastal Management Approach

Sarah Farnsworth

“When COVID-19 hit and I went on the ocean, that's when I felt normal. Then you get off the boat and everybody's in masks. It’s a crazy world. But every time I go out there, I feel like I'm in the right spot.” –Shelter Cove commercial fisherman, 2020

Map of California’s marine protected area (MPA) network. Source: California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) affect more than the species below the waves. These protected spaces can also have socioeconomic impacts on California's coastal communities. How do we understand the ecological, economic, and sociocultural changes that happen with California’s MPA network? 

The Long-term MPA Socioeconomic Monitoring Program for commercial and charter fisheries (or MPA Human Uses project) is funded by California Sea Grant in partnership with the Ocean Protection Council and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and will inform the Marine Protected Area Monitoring Program. The study set out to establish a scalable and replicable approach to monitoring the socioeconomic conditions of commercial fisheries and commercial passenger fishing vessel (CPFV) fisheries.

“People are an integral part of the California coastal ecosystem, and we stand to experience impacts and benefits from the marine protected area (MPA) network,” said principal investigator Jon Bonkoski, ” To understand the dynamic relationship between people and the environment through the lens of MPAs, we need to understand current and historical uses of coastal resources.”

Fishing communities have especially voiced concern about socioeconomic and recreational impacts related to the establishment of California’s MPA network, which sets limits on activities such as fishing around the state. Socioeconomic monitoring, in particular, includes the collection of data that provides the historical and current use of marine resources in relation to MPA formation, perceptions of MPAs by resource users, and MPA linkages to the socioeconomic health and well-being of people and communities. This helps to improve understanding around the implications of MPAs on coastal communities.

Project Design: Prioritizing Collaboration

To ensure the research findings would be useful, fishermen, resource managers, and researchers were engaged at the onset of the study and at key stages throughout the project’s duration to provide input on the project design and final product deliverables. These ‘Key Communicators’ were invited to share their perspectives and feedback through informal interviews, small group meetings/webinars, and one-on-one discussions with the project team. Following each conversation, the input shared was considered and integrated into the overall project design.

The project addressed three primary components: engagement with stakeholders; focus groups with members of California's commercial and CPFV (or charter) fishing communities; and modeling to explore commercial fishing activity inside and outside MPAs.

Focus Groups: Engaging With the Community

A key component of the project included focus groups, which were held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Commercial and charter fishermen were invited to share their perspectives about their fishing community’s health and well-being—including environmental conditions, markets, infrastructure, and social and political relationships—and how the MPAs have affected the economic and social aspects of life for fishing communities along the coast.

The team pointed out that catch numbers and fishing location data, while useful for statistical analyses, become more meaningful and powerful when put into the context of human stories, and the focus groups quickly began revealing the need for greater transparency in management.

MPA socioeconomic monitoring project team members  on a video call with fishermen from Bodega Bay, California in the first of 23 virtual focus groups that were held from July 2020-March 2021.

Key Findings

Both commercial fishermen and CPFV owners/operators shared the sentiment that MPAs had either a no/neutral or negative impact on ecological outcomes and negatively affected livelihoods, businesses, and fishing practices. A common theme that arose is the need for improved communication and transparency between managers/decision-makers, researchers, and fishing communities and that fishing perspectives and expertise are valuable and should be seriously considered in decision-making.

A full presentation of the key project findings and the data products/deliverables can be found on the project website.

Research Implications

The project resulted in several recommendations for future ongoing MPA monitoring efforts, including implementation of human dimensions research, collaboration across multiple research fields, transparency and inclusivity with all stakeholders, and investments in California fishing community well-being. This research also has the potential to inform fisheries management, federal offshore renewable energy siting processes, and other overlapping initiatives in California.

This update was developed by Sarah Farnsworth, 2021 California Sea Grant State Fellow at the Delta Stewardship Council.