Why is it difficult to find sustainable locally caught fresh fish?
Government regulations have forced most local trawlers out business.
The average person has no idea about all of the regulations that have literally driven all of the local trawling fishermen out of business. At one time there were about 440 trawlers fishing in California waters. Now there are only about six and only half of those fish year round.
The reason for this huge decline is legislation called the Magnus and Stevenson Act. According to the provisions of that act the regulators were supposed to do economic studies so that the rules would not put the industry out of business. However that part of the legislation seems to have been largely ignored; explained below:
Why is it So Difficult to Go Commercial Fishing?
1: We Have to Buy Quotas to be Allowed to Land the Fish.
Believe it or not, before we can leave the dock, we have to buy the right to be able to fish. Regulators have set quotas based on the amount of fish caught from 1994 to 1998. That catch history is then allocated to each individual boat for each individual species. However, the quotas are so low that any boat that really goes fishing needs to buy quota allocations in an auction.
There are different quotas with different price points for every single species of fish, and if you accidentally get a fish in your net that you did not have a quota to include then you can be fined and possibly even lose your right to fish. So this means that we have to purchase quotas for every kind of fish we might possibly encounter, even if it’s only one fish of that particular type that lands in our net.
Essentially we are buying the right to land a fish from someone else, and sometimes the cost of the quota is more than the value of the fish! For example, sablefish quotas cost about $1.20 to $1.35 per pound. However, when we land sablefish that weigh under 2 pounds, we only get paid $0.50 per pound from the buyers, so we lose money on the small fish.
If we get into a deficit on our quotas then the boat is literally not allowed to leave the dock until we buy more quota. This means we need to check the vessel account before we go out and spend as much money as needed to buy the quota to cover what we plan to catch.
2: The Government Makes Us Pay for Monitoring Everything We Do
Regulations require us to pay for special transponders on the boat so that the government can monitor our location at all times. This would not be a problem, if that was all that was required, but it is just the tip of iceberg.
3 : We are Required to Pay for a Person to Watch Everything We Do
Every time we want to go out and fish we need to pay for an observer to come and monitor everything we do. There are only two companies that provide these people and we have to inform them three days in advance of our need for an observer.
Sometimes we cannot get an observer because there are so few of them, and when you couple that with uncertainty over the weather conditions you can see how that makes our business very difficult.
In addition we have to pay for the Observer including their travel expenses, rental car, hotel, and their fee of $530 per day. Plus, if our boat gets back one minute after midnight then we have to pay them for another full day of their “services” – even though they may have only been there for one minute!
When we are out fishing, the Observers are watching everything we do and they have to verify the weight of our catch. However, everything they do is kept secret from us and they often times will turn in their paperwork months later after the trip.
If they say something in that paperwork – whether it is accurate or not – they can get us in a lot of trouble and potentially even thrown in jail for something that may have been a mistake or a misunderstanding.
On the other hand, we have many requirements to file paperwork with the government on our side as well, but our paperwork has to be filed right away. So these observers are not only expensive but potentially can put us out of business if they for whatever reason decide they want to hurt us when they finally file their paperwork.
4 : In Addition to Buying Quotas, We Also Pay 8% Tax on the Catch
In addition to needing to buy quotas to land fish on the boat, AND paying for observers to come watch everything we do, we also have to pay 8% tax on the gross value of our catch directly to the government. This is on our gross income of the boat before any expenses, and we have a very short window to pay.
The idea behind this tax was that it was supposed to include a 5% buyback fee which means the government would buy some of the permits back from other boats like crabbers and then that would allow them to remove a lot of the fleet to increase the quotas we are allowed to catch. However, we never got any extra quotas and yet we still have to pay this fee for the buyback .
The other part of the fee is 3% Administration tax for NOAA who is supposed to Monitor and administer the Observers. However, our experience is that they really don’t take any role in this area – even though they get our money.
Another interesting fact is that boats that go out fishing for Whiting only have to pay a 1% tax not 8%. Also, they can use cameras to monitor their activities and send in hard drives instead of paying for Observers. So clearly trawlers are being singled out for unfair treatment.
On top of that, the squid fleet has no oversight at all, so they make big money on their fishing. They use Seine Nets which also can hit the seafloor, and they might do 200 to 300 sets per day with their nets, and there are thousands of squid fisherman. So the idea that trawlers are harmful but squid fishermen are not really makes no sense….especially with our new technology for nets that barely ever touch the see floor.
5 : After All of the above, We Still Have Not Paid the Costs to Run the Boat!
All of the above costs still have not allowed us to go out and catch a fish. Our typical expenses for one fishing trip include:
- We need to put fuel in the boat which typically costs about $4,000 per trip.
- We also need to spend about $800 for ice,
- $350 for groceries, and
- about $1600 for crew.
- Not to mention the ongoing costs for maintenance and annual Coast Guard inspections and so on.
6 : Fish Buyers Also Cost Us More Money
We mentioned we have to pay an 8% tax on our gross catch, and that amount is dictated by the fish buyers when we land the catch. This is an estimate based on the gross weight of all the fish that is assuming a certain percentage of the total weight will be actual fillets that are sellable. That estimate is then used to value the fish and calculate the tax.
However, what usually happens is that the buyers overestimate the yield of the fish so we end up paying the 8% tax on a higher number of pounds than we actually get paid for ourselves. Even though the weight of fillets might be 30% less than estimated initially, there is no mechanism in the law to allow us to adjust the amount of tax we owe to be paying for the actual amount of production that we got paid on. This makes the effective tax rate even higher!
Another factor that works against us is that the fish processors have a lot of staff turnover, so they hire a lot of people to cut fish. When they bring in new staff, they tend to train them on the bottom fish that we bring in (because it is lower cost fish). This means that we can lose up to 30% of our catch on the waste from inexperienced cutters.
In addition, the fish markets typically take 6 to 8 weeks to pay the fisherman and they frequently deduct $3000 to $5,000 off of the tag amount that we were expecting to be paid – without telling us why.
So are we Crazy or What?
So, when you consider all of the factors above you can see why most fishermen have given up on the trawling business. However, at Pioneer Seafood we are committed to helping turn this around so that we can provide good quality, fresh, locally caught fish to our customers.
With our new fishing technology, we have virtually eliminated the contact of the net with the ocean bottom, and our nets will allow the juvenile fish to escape.
We are very proud to have been featured on the cover of the Environmental Defense Fund magazine (LINK TO ARTICLE) where the cover said “Fishermen show they can be good stewards of the sea”.
We are committed so showing the way forward for sustainable fishing and also hoping that we can make enough profit to feed our families in the same way the previous generations of our family have done
How To Support Our Efforts in Sustainable Fishing
We appreciate your support in requesting that your local stores and restaurants carry this sustainably caught, locally-sourced fresh fish. Ask for fresh fish from Pioneer Seafoods by name at the restaurants and fish markets you patronize.
In addition, we recently went through incredible regulatory hurdles to become the first fishing boat in California with a “First Receiver’s License.” This means we are now able to sell fish directly off our boat so that you may come and buy this delectable fish direct from the source.
Check Our Schedule and Buy Direct From Our Boat at Pier 47 Slip 500C
We are still working on getting our fishing trips set up on a regular schedule, but watch this website as we will have our calendar, and we will have updates on our fishing trips in realtime on Facebook. Our first fishing trip with the First Receiver’s license was in late March 2017, and we sold over 30,000 pounds of fish directly off of the boat to various fish markets and restaurants who were thrilled with the quality of the fish.
We brought in:
- Chili Pepper Rock Fish
- Sable Fish
- Petrale Sole
- Ling Cod
- Sand Dabs
- Widow Rock Fish
And we had buyers coming back for a second load after they saw how great the fish were.