Did the number of active vessels in the fishery change?

Indicators: Number of Active Vessels

Key Findings

  • During the baseline years for which data are available (2005–2010), the number of active vessels in the non-whiting groundfish trawl fishery showed a declining trend, while the size of the shorebased Pacific whiting fleet fluctuated.
  • In the first year of the Shorebased IFQ Program in 2011, the number of vessels landing non-whiting groundfish dropped by 7 percent, while the number of vessels landing Pacific whiting fell by 19 percent. Some vessel owners decided that their quota shares (QS) were insufficient to fish economically and chose either to lease their quota pounds (QP) each year or to leave the groundfish fishery entirely, while others appear to have pooled their QP holdings and fished them off fewer vessels.
  • During first five years of the catch share program the number of non-whiting vessels decreased by 19 percent, and the number of shorebased Pacific whiting vessels decreased by 26 percent.

Interactive Chart Story


This indicator measures changes in the number of fishing boats that actively participate in the catch share fishery.

In Their Own Words

Although some of the quantitative data analyzed for this indicator exhibited clear trends, it was challenging to discuss the relationships between observed data trends and implementation of the respective catch share programs. The Measuring the Effects of Catch Shares project team 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. The following quotes were selected to illustrate some of those perspectives and highlight trends such as effects on small vessels, the effect of avoiding “choke stocks,” fleet diversification, and product quality. The individual quotes do not represent findings or conclusions for this indicator, nor do they represent a consensus across any category of participants.

“You took boats off the water. And that was originally one of the purposes, was to get some of those excess boats away, which is happening. These guys are selling out. So now you’re going to have the mega-trawlers. You’re going to have boats that are go-getters with high quota.”
~ Processor

“The only boats that exist are the big boats with big volumes. All the little boats are gone. There was a whole fleet of boats that were between 55 and 70 ft. Every one of them is gone except for one.”
~ Fisherman

“Consolidation is the boogeyman in the closet when everybody’s talking. And there’s been a lot of fisheries that have a lot of consolidation, but they’ve all been high-end fisheries that have big dollar amounts on their product. Any time you start looking at trawling where you’ve got low-value fish, low margin, it takes everything to put your year together. You can’t do it in two or three months and be done. There’s very little consolidation. I won’t say there hasn’t been some, but I think the consolidation happened before the program went into effect, not after.”
~ Fisherman

“When this program went in, the Council says there’s going to be a two-year cooling-down period, which I think turned into a three- or four-year cooling-down period, and there would be no permanent trades or sales during that period. I really believe that that was the right way to go because you didn’t know how this program was going to turn out. You didn’t know if the value was going to be in the boat, in the fish, or in a piece of paper. You didn’t know if you were going to have more access to fish or less access to fish. It gave people time to learn what was going on. But many people panicked. We had a lot of small guys sell their groundfish off. That was the consolidation you saw.”
~ Fisherman

“You’ve seen guys like myself that had three boats that qualify, but I only fish [in the IFQ fishery] with two boats. But it’s not like I have one boat doing nothing. It’s fishing in [other fisheries] year-round. When I think of consolidation, I think a lack of jobs, lack of accessibility for crews, people making less money, that kind of stuff. I’ve been able to streamline the business a little bit to where two boats are fishing whiting here and one boat’s [pursuing other fisheries], so actually I’ve got more crew because we’re fishing more. I’ve added people and they rotate a month on and a month off on two boats. And on the other boat, they go two months on and a month off.”
~ Fisherman

“So I don’t know about excessive consolidation. I don’t think that that’s been borne out. Like the problems with getting fish out of the water, some might say, “Well, because there are less boats” or whatever, and that’s not the case. There are enough boats to catch the fish. It’s just all these other regulations keeping people from getting the fish in my opinion.”
~ Fisherman


Baseline: Before Catch Share Program

During the baseline years for which data are available (20052010), the number of active vessels in the non-whiting groundfish trawl fishery showed a declining trend. Factors that affected participation in the fishery over the past three decades included implementation of the limited entry program in 1993; a voluntary, partially federally subsidized vessel and permit buyback program in 2003 (which removed 91 groundfish limited entry trawl permits or about 35 percent of existing trawl permits); efforts to rebuild overfished stocks, including large area closures and lower catch limits (History of the Fishery and Management Framework)and the consolidation of West Coast processing groups that followed an earlier expansion in the processing industry (Seafood Buyers and Processors). In addition, rising costs, such as dramatic increases in marine fuel prices since 1999, may have reduced vessel profits and caused a decrease in participation.

The shorebased Pacific whiting fleet expanded rapidly in the 1990s. During the 20022010 baseline period, the number of active vessels ranged from a low of 26 in 2004 to a high of 39 in 2007. While fleet size fluctuated from year to year, the general increasing trend in vessel numbers may have reflected a race-for-fish strategy in use at the time. This strategy involved each company deploying all of its vessels at once in order to catch as many fish, as rapidly as possible (Management Framework).

During Catch Share Program

After implementation of the Shorebased IFQ Program in 2011, there was a reduction in the sizes of both the non-whiting and Pacific whiting components of the shorebased groundfish trawl fleet. Between 2005 and 2010, the average annual rate of decrease in the number of vessels with limited entry trawl permits landing non-whiting groundfish was about 3 percent; in 2011, the number of vessels dropped by approximately 7 percent. The downward trend has continued, although the rate of decline had decreased. Overall, during first five years of the catch share program the number of non-whiting vessels decreased by 19 percent.

The number of shorebased Pacific whiting vessels fell to 26 in 2011, the lowest number since 2004. The fleet size thereafter continued its general downward trend, and by 2015 it had reached 22. This consolidation within the non-whiting groundfish and shorebased Pacific whiting fleets happened for a number of reasons. In some cases, a non-whiting groundfish vessel’s QS was likely insufficient to fish economically. These fishermen may have sold their groundfish QP to other vessel owners and either entered different fisheries or stopped fishing entirely. In addition, cooperation appears to be occurring within the shorebased Pacific whiting fleet, where vessel owners are consolidating their QP holdings among fewer active vessels in order to reduce costs and increase profitability.

Data Gaps and Limitations

Reliable data on the number of active non-whiting groundfish trawl vessels prior to 2006 are not readily available through public reports. In addition, data for the number of active vessels by vessel size category are currently unavailable for the baseline years and the catch share program period.

Information Sources

Pacific Fishery Management Council and National Marine Fisheries Service. 2010. Proposed Harvest Specifications and Management Measures for the 20132014 Pacific Coast Fishery Management Plan and Amendment 21-2 to Pacific Coast Fishery Management Plan Final Environmental Impact Statement. Portland, OR.

Pacific Fishery Management Council and National Marine Fisheries Service. 2012. Rationalization of the Pacific Coast Groundfish Limited Entry Trawl Fishery; Final Environmental Impact Statement Including Regulatory Impact Review and Initial Regulatory Flexibility Analysis. Portland, OR.

Pacific Fishery Management Council and National Marine Fisheries Service. 2012. Reconsideration of Initial Catch Share Allocations in the Mothership and Shoreside Pacific Whiting Fisheries: Preliminary Draft Environmental Assessment and Magnuson-Stevens Act Analysis. Portland, OR..

Matson, S. 2012. West Coast Groundfish IFQ Fishery Catch Summary for 2011: First Look. National Marine Fisheries Service, Northwest Regional Office. Seattle, WA.

Matson, S. 2013.  Annual Catch Report for the Pacific Coast Groundfish, Shorebased IFQ Program in 2012. National Marine Fisheries Service, Northwest Regional Office. Seattle, WA.

National Marine Fisheries Service. 2012.The West Coast groundfish IFQ fishery: Results from the First Year of Catch Shares. Northwest Regional Office. Seattle, WA.

National Marine Fisheries Service. 2017a. West Coast Groundfish Trawl Catch Share Program Five-year Review – Draft. Pacific Fishery Management Council. Portland, OR.

National Marine Fisheries Service. 2017b. FISHeries Economics Explorer (FISHEyE). Available online: https://dataexplorer.northwestscience.fisheries.noaa.gov/fisheye/ 

Updated: May 2018

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