As part of the Measuring the Effects of Catch Shares (MECS) project, MECS project team members conducted limited fieldwork and interviews with direct participants in the Northeast Multispecies Sector Program and the West Coast Shorebased IFQ Program. The summary provided here includes a discussion of the overall purpose of the fieldwork task, a discussion of the methodologies employed, an identification of the locations visited, and some generalized themes heard from the various interviewees.

The fieldwork associated with this project consisted of a series of interviews with key members of the commercial fishing industry in New England and along the West Coast who were knowledgeable about how the relationships between fisheries, fishermen, and coastal communities have been affected by the implementation of catch share regimes. Specifically, questions asked during the interviews focused on the primary indicators identified on the MECS website, including how revenues and landings have changed over time, changes in fishing “portfolios” by local fleets, changes in crew employment and compensation, changes in vessel and crew safety, and changes in fishing support service and processor/market activity and employment. Other questions focused on biological and governance issues, providing context for biomass and catch trends seen in the quantitative data, as well as collecting qualitative information regarding how the programs were implemented through the council process, respectively.

The MECS project fieldwork sessions were successful and project team members were able to speak to a range of key stakeholders who were active fishermen, sector/co-op leaders, federal- and state-level fishery managers, processor and fish market management staff, support service enterprise managers and staff, and community leaders. Insights were gained into the variation and apparent inconsistencies seen in the publicly available quantitative data. Examples of these insights include deeper understanding of the relationship between targeted species, “choke” species, and traditional fishing ranges for small and large vessels; the financial and logistical challenges associated with the on-board monitoring program; outside economic pressures that affected the demand for some plentiful species; vessel consolidation; and the degree to which the approach of “fish when you want, where you want, and how you want” that was seen as having the potential to accompany the transition to catch shares has been realized (or not) by direct participants in the fisheries.

Purpose and Need

Early in the MECS project period, the social and economic research team members focused on using publicly available quantitative information to explore how the fisheries, communities, and participants (e.g., fishermen, fishery managers, support service business owners, etc.) had been affected by the implementation of catch-share management regimes.

After reviewing existing datasets, identifying relevant indicators among the available data, and compiling information, the social indicator team found that data gaps and issues of data interpretation remained. These gaps and issues varied by dataset and geography, but included instances where social indicator data were collected:

  • at the subregional (e.g., statewide, countywide) level but were not recent and in some cases did not include data for years under the catch share management program,
  • at the subregional level and were recent but did not have adequate time-depth to allow comparisons to a baseline period;
  • recently but were not collected at the subregional level,
  • recently and at the subregional level but had not been published in a publicly available dataset or were otherwise unavailable to the social indicator team, or
  • recently and at the subregional level, and were available to the social indicator team, but did not provide an adequate level of detail to provide meaningful insights.

The research team believed that these data gaps hindered the analysis presented on the website and additional details were needed to provide a more comprehensive, holistic description as to how people and communities were affected by the recent changes in fishery management.

  • Although some datasets exhibited clear trends, the groundfish fishery did not exist in a vacuum, and it was challenging to discuss the relationships between observed data trends and implementation of the respective catch share programs, especially in the Northeast. It was believed that those stakeholders most involved in the fishery, either as active participants or as representatives of an involved coalition of participants (e.g., sector managers in the Northeast), would be able to provide insight and help to explain trends seen in the existing quantitative data.
  • Some existing data were not detailed enough to see clear trends. This was particularly true for data related to vessel safety and support service businesses. For vessel safety, the annual number of events varied widely from year to year (and absolute numbers were relatively small so that one major event could skew annual results) so that clear trends could not be found. For support service businesses, entities such as marine supply warehouses and net repair businesses provide services to vessels outside the multispecies groundfish fishery and quantitative data on the estimated employment and revenue were not likely to be detailed enough to discuss impacts of the respective catch-share programs. It was believed that those stakeholders most active in the fishery would be able to discuss issues that may not be easily seen in the data.
  • While a primary goal of the research project was to provide objective and unbiased results, the team found that many secondary data sources providing contextual information (e.g., newspaper articles, editorials, blogs, fishery council testimony) presented subjective opinion as fact and that these sources were difficult to include in the larger analysis without multiple caveats. The social and economic research team believed that a more systematic and credible qualitative research approach could provide the project with less biased information.


Based on our understanding of the Northeast and West Coast groundfish fisheries, fishery management regimes, and involved stakeholders, we approached seven primary groups of people to participate in interviews:

  • sector/co-op managers,
  • fishermen/crew,
  • marine business association leaders,
  • marine support service business owners,
  • vessel owner association leaders,
  • crew association leaders, and
  • NMFS and Council staff.

Project team members identified an initial set of interviewees on each coast based on previous work in the region, knowledge of the fisheries, and input from a hired consultant. The initial interviewees were chosen through a purposive sampling processing which we consciously selected specific key informants to ensure that insights relevant to the fishery would be included in the study. This approach differs from a random sampling approach that attempts to interview enough randomly selected persons so that the study mirrors the population as a whole. Our sampling approach also included a chain-referral (i.e., “snowball”) sampling approach by which interviewees were asked to refer others knowledgeable about the relevant aspects of the multispecies groundfish fishery.

Many of the interviews were conducted in person. However, some key stakeholders could not be interviewed in the field and were interviewed by phone. The interview process was arranged along an open-ended, semi-structured interview protocol that included questions focused on how the relationships between fisheries, fishermen, and coastal communities were affected by the implementation of catch share management regimes.

  • The open-ended nature of the interviews allowed the local experts participating in the project to communicate information in a manner that best conveyed their individual perspectives and practices. The open-ended nature of the interview also permitted the research team and the interviewee to find and explore the topics of research that were the most productive.
  • The semi-structured nature of additional questions and probing concentrated on specific data gaps, including an examination of revenues and landings by community, overall vessel activity by community, changes in fleet composition by community, changes in fishing “portfolios” pursued by local fleets, changes in crew employment and compensation, changes in vessel and crew safety, and changes in fishing support service and processor/market activity and employment, depending on their role.

If consent was granted, the interview was audio recorded digitally using either handheld or lavaliere condenser microphones. At the end of each interview, the interviewee was asked if they knew of anyone else who might provide information on how catch share management has affected the fishery and, in turn, local communities. As the answers from interviewees were open-ended, the interviews lasted as long as the respondent was willing to participate, typically 45 to 90 minutes.

In some instances, interviewees identified through the chain-referral sampling approach had very specific knowledge about a narrow subset of protocol questions. In these instances, the research team found that it was neither necessary nor productive to conduct a full open-ended interview on all research topics. For example, support service business owners typically had detailed knowledge of how their business had been affected by changes in the groundfish fishery over time, but they had limited knowledge of catch trends, the administrative and regulatory structure of the groundfish program, seafood price fluctuations, trends in overall vessel earnings, or vessel safety concerns. For these interviewees, focused questions about their role in the fishery were prioritized, as well as focused questions to triangulate information gathered through more in-depth interviews. In many cases, these interviews were shorter (10 to 15 minutes) and conducted in less formal locations than longer interviews. Many of these interviews were not recorded, although written notes of each interview were taken.

Fieldwork Dates, Communities, and Interviews

Listed below are the dates and locations of fieldwork and interviews. Also listed are the number of interviews conducted during each field visit, including how many were audio recorded. During this fieldwork effort, project team members conducted interviews with fishermen, commercial fishing vessel owners, processor management, support service business owners and managers, and other stakeholders knowledgeable about the recent changes in fishery management. In general, those participants most involved in the fishery were audio recorded; those with less direct participation were not audio recorded, but project team members did take written notes of the interviews. Transcriptionists produced written transcriptions of the audio recorded interviews from November 2015 and March 2016; transcriptions of audio recorded interviews from September 2016 were not available.

November 2015: West Coast

27 participants interviewed. 14 interviews recorded.


  • Astoria/Warrenton, Oregon
  • Newport/Toledo, Oregon
  • Coos Bay/Charleston, Oregon
  • Portland, Oregon

March 2016: Northeast

29 participants interviewed. 22 interviews recorded.


  • Various interviewees at the Maine Fishermen’s Forum
  • Boothbay, Maine
  • Brunswick, Maine
  • Portsmouth, New Hampshire
  • Hampton, New Hampshire
  • Gloucester, Massachusetts
  • Chatham, Massachusetts

September 2016: West Coast

18 participants interviewed. 11 interviews recorded.


  • Fort Bragg, California
  • Eureka, California
  • Seattle, Washington

When reporting results and quoting from the interviews, we used the following Interviewee Categories to identify respondents’ affiliations while maintaining confidentiality:

  • Fishermen: Vessel masters/captains, crew, owners
  • Industry Representatives: Sector managers, coop managers, vessel association staff, processor association staff
  • Processors: Individuals affiliated with fish processors or dealers
  • Government: State and federal fishery managers and scientists
  • NGO: Individuals associated with non-government (and non-industry) entities

New England Interview Trends

Specific quotes from interviews are included in the individual economic and social indicator discussions to illustrate trends and issues seen at the individual indicator level. Looking more broadly, the following general themes arose repeatedly in our New England interviews:

  • Consolidation: Maine has had a decrease in the number of vessels under the Sector Program, but the decrease is a continuation of a trend that started a decade (or more) before program implementation.
  • Operation Costs: Overall, the Sector Program has negatively affected smaller vessels. The reasons for this include the economies of scale that affect smaller vessels with regard to the amount of money they can make per trip. Costs associated with observers (including travel costs) were subsidized in the early years of the program, but interviewees who ran smaller vessels noted that more recently expenses associated with paying for observers was beginning to be cost prohibitive. This was particularly true when observers were booked for a trip that was then called off because of inclement New England weather. Another factor negatively affecting smaller vessels was the cost associated with “choke-species” quota, particularly cod.
  • Constraining Stocks: The depressed cod stocks have resulted in cod becoming a choke species for the entire fishery. Multiple fishermen stated that cod stocks have rebounded and that stock assessment numbers published by NOAA were low. The perceived inaccuracy of the data has generally resulted in a substantial level of resentment toward NOAA staff on the part of New England fishermen. Fishermen stated that they had a hard time avoiding cod while pursuing other species and had to find a way to work with their sector managers to obtain additional cod quota. More established fishermen interviewed typically asserted that the Sector Program was generally well organized and provided a way to make money when allocations were high. However, under low allocations—with cod singled out specifically—the Sector Program was seen as having negative consequences.
  • Diversifying Fishing Activities: Coinciding with the Sector Program in New England had been a series of good years for lobster harvesting. Fishermen and vessel owners stated that many Maine fishermen transitioned their smaller vessels to the (state-run) lobster fishery, which was perceived as more lucrative and easier for new entrants to pursue.
  • Crew Retention: Reliable crew have become harder to recruit and keep employed in recent years. For small vessels, the uneven nature of the groundfish fishery, low cod stocks, and overall low quotas have hurt recruiting and retention. Additionally, the opioid epidemic has hit rural New England, and the number of individuals with substance abuse issues who would otherwise be potential crew members has made recruiting even harder.
  • Fishery Support Services: Support service businesses have largely disappeared from small New England coastal communities in Maine and New Hampshire, with most of the remaining businesses becoming concentrating in New Bedford and Gloucester, Massachusetts. Portland, Maine, was a local center for Maine fishermen, but even its offering of services had decreased in recent years, driving many Maine fishermen to purchase goods and services to the south.
  • Illegal and Unreported Fishing: Interviews conducted in New England in early 2016 occurred just as news became public that Carlos Rafael, the major vessel owner in the groundfish fishery, had engaged in a number of fraudulent fishing practices, including misrepresenting the species caught, which strikes at the heart of the catch share allocation system. A number of interviewees noted the news and stated that they believed that Rafael’s cheating may have singlehandedly decreased stocks since his operation was so dominant. Furthermore, multiple interviewees noted that Rafael, while clearly the highest profile and most egregious actor, was likely not the only fishery participant who engaged in these types of practices, eroding confidence in the management system. Unobserved and unrecorded discards were considered the issue most likely to be relatively widespread within the fleet, especially occurring on smaller vessels.
  • Sector Management: The establishment of the role of “sector manager” had generally been viewed favorably by fishermen. While the specific responsibilities and efficacy of individual managers was reported as varying from sector to sector, the sector manager generally interacted with fishery managers, NOAA staff, and enforcement agencies on a range of issues. This left the fishermen to concentrate more on fishing and less on dealing with regulatory issues. A smaller number of interviewees had negative perceptions of sector managers as representatives of another level of bureaucracy and suggested that sometimes sector managers concentrated on the health of the sector and may not actively help individual vessels.
  • Market Shifts: Processor- and auction-affiliated interviewees generally stated that low ACLs and the Sector Program (which were difficult to separate) have resulted in fewer fish, but better quality fish. The market had stabilized from substantial decreases in ACL recently, but local processing of frozen cod from Iceland and Canada was now making up for what was  caught domestically a decade ago, with respect to keeping operations in business.

West Coast Interview Trends

Specific quotes from interviews are included in the individual economic and social indicator discussions to illustrate trends and issues seen at the individual indicator level. Looking more broadly, the following general themes arose repeatedly in our West Coast interviews:

  • Successive Regulations: Overall, the shift to IFQs was not seen as fundamentally detrimental to the business of non-whiting groundfish fishing. Rather, IFQs were more likely to be seen as “just another regulation” in a fishery that has experienced multiple, successive layers of regulations over the past decade. The most frustrating component of the IFQ program, for many stakeholders, was the fact that many legacy regulatory restraints were still in place and the double set of regulations (i.e., IFQs in addition to Rockfish Closure Areas and footrope limits) limited success in catching groundfish. A number of individuals characterized this situation as fishermen having to bear the full burden of an IFQ program without experiencing the full benefits of an IFQ program.
  • Effort Shifts: The IFQ program has substantially changed the timing of when fishermen fish. Under the old program, groundfish trip limits were reset every two months. The result was that groundfish trips would occur on a rolling, two-month timeframe. Under IFQs, groundfish fishing has become more seasonal (spring and fall) and was being used to fill parts of the year that were generally not busy with crab and shrimp fishing. This has had the effect of flooding the market with groundfish in major seasonal pulses, resulting in lower prices, more frozen product for processors, and less consistent delivery schedules, which, in turn, negatively impacted market development.
  • Operation Costs: Costs under the IFQ program were seen as disproportionately challenging for smaller vessels. Costs included those for observers, program fees, and buy-back program fees. Larger whiting vessels were reportedly less constrained by these fees. But smaller vessels found that they would “run backwards” financially if they did not have an optimum trip after vessel costs (e.g., fuel, ice) and fees were deducted.
  • Consolidation: Large-scale consolidation has not occurred as a result of the IFQ program, at least in the sense of vessels leaving commercial fishing altogether, although some vessels are no longer active. According to interviewees, most of the consolidation occurred during the buy-back program before the implementation of the catch share program. Several interviewees relayed anecdotal stories of people who sold vessels in the buy-back program only to take the money and purchase/upgrade a different vessel, essentially circumventing the capacity reduction goal of the program. Another fisherman who owned multiple vessels that fished in both Alaska and on the West Coast was able to consolidate quota to reduce vessel movement between the two regions, cutting operating expenses and effectively moving one vessel from the West Coast fishery.
  • Gear Switching: Fixed-gear sablefish fishing has been a successful way to make money for smaller, fixed-gear vessels that have benefitted from the gear switching opportunities offered under the trawl IFQ program. Facilitated by a lucrative Asian market for fresh, high-quality sablefish and relatively high ex-vessel values for fixed-gear caught sablefish, non-trawlers have managed to obtain trawl permits and trawl sablefish quota that can be gear switched. However, this made sablefish an IFQ “choke species” for trawl fishermen since there was not as much trawl sablefish IFQ available on the open market.
  • Constraining Species: C:TAC ratios were low for a number of species because they co-occurred with “choke species” which were those species which had low TAC numbers (e.g., yelloweye rockfish) or otherwise had little quota available on the open market (e.g., sablefish). Other species occurred in Rockfish Closure Areas and were otherwise not able to be exploited fully due to legacy regulations.
  • Diversification: Earnings and revenues had gone up in recent years at the vessel level due to historic shrimp seasons and strong crab seasons. Fishermen were finding that the record shrimp harvests were providing an economic boost to their annual cycle and they were concentrating less on groundfish. While some groundfish values had gone up (e.g., sablefish) and others had gone down (e.g., whiting, due at least partially to geopolitical issues with Russia, a major importer), earnings from shrimp remained high and were a major driver in the region.
  • Monitoring Costs: As mentioned above, the observer program was seen as a substantial cost for smaller vessels—even in a subsidized state. The costs and presence of observers on smaller vessels were particularly burdensome. Interviewees were split, however, on whether a shift to electronic monitoring would be preferred. Costs were considered to be relatively comparable, since the electronic monitoring system was a substantial up-front cost and repairs would be necessary; in-person observers were a lower initial cost, but likely to prove costlier over time. In-person observers, however, may be “more forgiving” with the possibility of negotiated solutions in some instances that might otherwise result in potential infractions.
  • Crew Retention: As there had been consolidation due to the combined impact of buy-back and IFQ programs, fewer crew positions were available on the whole. Multiple interviewees stated that the IFQ program had made the fishery “more professional” and had forced fishermen to improve the efficiencies of their operations and more capable crew members have remained in the fishery. Conversely, less reliable crew members had reportedly not stayed in the fishery. Crew compensation had remained generally consistent when considered on an annual basis, but the consistent wages were largely attributed to high shrimp values; crew payments for groundfish had been lower on the whole (due to added costs and fees) and groundfish fishing generally comprised a lower percentage of annual activity than in past years.
  • Safety at Sea: Multiple interviewees stated that they were able to avoid bad weather since groundfish had shifted to IFQs, improving safety. Additionally, relatively recent safety equipment requirements and vessel reviews conducted by on-board observers had resulted in improved safety. However, one interviewee suggested that the reduction of vessels in the fishery had decreased the number of vessels on the grounds that could quickly assist during a vessel disaster/emergency in advance of Coast Guard assistance. Overall, however, many people felt that the groundfish fishery was relatively safe, especially compared to the local Dungeness crab fishery.
  • Fishery Support Services: Overall, support service businesses experienced a drop in activity resulting from the reduction in vessels as a result of the buy-back program; any subsequent decrease resulting in IFQ-related vessel consolidation had not been seen to a large degree in the study communities. Shipyard and vessel construction services had seen an increase in business over the past few years. One electronics business owner stated that he had more (but less profitable) repair calls as opposed to (more profitable) replacement/new orders, while another electronics business owner stated that they had seen an increase in work due to a recent contract supporting the testing of electronic monitoring equipment. Overall, high shrimp prices had kept vessels fishing and in need of support services. Furthermore, interviewees suggested that coastal Oregon communities had benefitted the most in the past five years since support service businesses in other regions (e.g., Northern California) had closed.
  • Seafood Processors: Processors had been negatively affected by the IFQ program because groundfish had become more seasonal, as discussed above. Also, whiting prices had declined substantially in recent years due to a Russian embargo on American whiting and a depressed market in Ukraine. Finally, increased shrimp prices had driven fishermen to concentrate on the shrimp fishery instead of the groundfish fishery.
  • Compliance: Infractions had decreased substantially under the IFQ program, according to many interviewees. This was partially due to the presence of observers, who could provide warnings to fishermen before infractions were committed. Additionally, because the quota market was relatively straightforward, catch limit overages could be quickly rectified by obtaining quota on the open market.
  • Program Management: Respondents were split as to whether they were spending more or less time attending meetings or otherwise thinking about the management of the program. For people most involved in the whiting fleet, activity was higher prior to the implementation of the program; post-program, someone had been hired to specifically deal with management issues (particularly refinancing the buy-back loan), freeing up fishermen’s time. For people most involved in non-whiting groundfish, involvement had been higher post-implementation. Part of this activity had been focused on lobbying for the lifting of holdover regulations and financial assistance regarding observer costs, program fees, and buy-back program financing.

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