Does Holding a Commercial Fishing License Make a Fisherman Fish Commercially?

PIFSC Socioeconomics Program economists, Dr. Hing Ling Chan and Dr. Minling Pan, in collaboration with the State of Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources, recently completed a study to examine the economic and social characteristics of the Hawaii small boat fishery. In 2014, they conducted a survey of 1,796 fishermen that held a State of Hawaii commercial marine license (CML) and reported fish sales in the past 12 months. Nearly half of the fishermen (47%) responded to the survey and this study presents a wide range of information to further our understanding of the fishery – especially how fishermen’s motivations are associated with levels of fishing activity, catch distribution, and fishing costs.


Figure 1. Survey response distribution: How do you define yourself as a fisherman?

Results from this survey build upon past efforts to describe the diversity of fisher motivations and how they relate to behavior in the Hawaii small boat fishery.  Fishermen were asked to self-classify themselves and motivations varied widely as shown in Figure 1. This study finds that fisher motivations have tight linkages with their fishing behaviors, including the number of fishing trips taken in a year, total landings, catch rate (catch per trip), and what fishermen do with their catch (consume at home, give away, sell, etc.)

Compared to self-classified “non-commercial” fishermen, fishers identifying themselves as “full-time” or “part-time” commercial fishermen had more intensive fishing activities in terms of number of fishing trips and annual fish landings.  However, they did not sell 100% of their catches.  A substantial portion of their landings, 21% and 27%, respectively, were retained for home consumption and customary exchange.  These findings support past research findings that emphasized the vital social role small boat commercial fishermen play in local communities.  On the other hand, self-classified “non-commercial” fishermen also sold a substantial portion of their catches.  For example, fishers that identified with “recreational expense” and “purely recreational” classifications sold 52% and 28% of their total landings, respectively.  The figure below illustrates the catch distribution by different types of fisher classification.


Figure 2. Distribution of catch, by fisher self-classification

Another primary goal of this study was to update our understanding on the costs of fishing and to detail current levels of investment in the fishery.  During 2013-2014, small boat fishing trip costs averaged approximately $269, which is 36% higher than an inflation-adjusted $198 in a previous cost-earnings study of the Hawaii small boat pelagic fishery, fielded in 2007-2008.  The study also found trip costs varied by gear type. Survey responses indicated that trolling trips cost the most at $292 while boat-based spearfishing trips cost the least at $159.  Regardless of the gear type, fuel costs (boat and truck) account for more than half of total trip costs. While trip costs were similar across most fisher classifications, full-time commercial fishermen reported 46% higher trolling trip costs and 83% higher bottomfish trip costs when compared with other fishermen.


Figure 3. Average boat-based trip costs, by gear: 2014

In addition to trip costs, small boat fishermen incur significant fixed costs to fish throughout the year including: boat and trailer repair and maintenance, gear replacement and repair, boat insurance, mooring, loan payments, financial services, fees, and other expenses.  The survey found that annual fixed costs averaged $5,557 with the median of $3,364.

chan4A brochure of key preliminary findings has been published and distributed to all the small boat fishermen who received the survey.

Click here to download a copy of the brochure.

More detailed information, including a comprehensive social and economic profile of the fleet and cost-earnings analysis, will be documented in forthcoming NOAA technical reports. Stay tuned!

For more information about this research or to comment on survey results, feel free to contact us:

For more information about other research from the PIFSC Socioeconomics Program visit our website or browse recent blog posts.

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