Fishermen are not unlike other small business owners experiencing hardships in today’s tough economic climate.
How to help them develop new strategies that are socially, economically and environmentally sustainable will be the focus of a new research project being led by California State University, Dominguez Hills assistant professor of anthropology Ana Pitchon
Funded by the California Sea Grant and University of Southern California Sea Grant programs as part of a $1 million coastal social science research initiative, the project is one of two selected from a competitive, peer-reviewed grant process.
“These projects are part of our commitment to innovation using science—and that includes social science—and also working directly with communities to try to get better answers to have good seafood available to consumers but in a way that works for both fisherman as well as for the environment, which is important to their businesses down the road,” said Jane Lubchenco, undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which administers the 32 Sea Grant programs across the nation.
For the next two years, Pitchon and co-investigator on the project James Hilger, a fisheries resource economist at NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in San Diego, will be conducting a socio-economic analysis of California’s fishing industry. Specifically, they will be looking at ways to increase market value in the regional fishing economy, using as case studies the Dungeness crab, the spot prawn, the Pacific sardine, and nearshore finfish species. These four local fisheries have the potential to be in-demand seafood, but due to costly changes to catching methods, increased regulations, or misperceptions of some of these fisheries as a high quality seafood currently are not.
“We selected these fisheries for their distinctive characteristics and their importance in the history of California and the West fishing industry,” Pitchon explained. “This work specifically investigates cutting-edge approaching to existing management challenges, including market-based approaches that preserve both the marine resource and the West’s commercial fishing heritage.”
Pitchon and her co-investigators, working with officials with the California Department of Fish and Game and west coast fisheries organizations, will be interviewing fishermen throughout the state, paying particular interest to economic, social, regulatory factors that hinder a fisherman’s ability to make a living. She said that some of the issues they hope to address are how traditional methods of processing their catch and marketing it have become economically dysfunctional, and what innovations have been developed to adapt to changes in the industry.
“This question is particularly relevant in the current context in which the West Coast commercial fishing industry is generally experiencing economic distress,” Pitchon said. “Our research is going to focus on building a sustainable regional economy throughout California’s and the West’s coastal fishing-dependent communities by identifying innovative responses in key fisheries to heightened restrictions and closures and using them as models for other similar fisheries in the West.”
Results of the study will be shared in a series of town halls with fishing communities and further developed in a series of recommendations on how fishing communities on the West Coast can develop sustainable practices that are more cost-efficient for the fisherman and result in high-quality, high value seafood consumers want.
“Key research outcomes will identify market channel structures, law, policies, organizational structures, and other factors that can help move West Coast fisheries toward generating higher value products,” Pitchon said. “In doing so, our research will contribute towards linking fisheries that are biologically sustainable with the goal of also sustaining marine ecosystems and the coastal communities that have traditionally depended upon these resources.”