How Many Commercial Fishermen?
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS W eb
Ho w M an y Co mmercial F ish e rmen ?
Specialist i n N atural Resources Policy
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
Current es timates of t he number of U.S. commercial fishermen are s uspect , yet
accurate numbers are important for forecas ting and planning for t he impact of proposed
legi slation and programs, s uch as d isas ter relief and capac i t y r eduction under t he
Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Accurate figu res can
help Congress predict budget implications and allocate limited budget resou r ces for
thes e program s. Part of the problem lies with how “commercial fisherman” i s defined
and how employment data are collected, and resolution m ay hinge o n finding better
ways to identify and count people who work in a v ery fluid and t ransient industry.
Im proved estimates of t he number of U.S. commercial fishermen can im p rove the
ability of federal l egislators and regulators t o accurately forecast and plan for t he impacts
o f p roposed legi slation, such as amendmen ts affecting d isaster relief and capa c i t y
reduction p rograms under t he Magnuson-Stev ens Fishery Conservation and Management
Act (P.L. 94-265, 16 U.S.C. 1801 et seq .). M ore accurat e fi gu res o n num b e r s o f
commercial fishermen can als o assist Congress in predicting budget implications and
allocating limited budget res ources in appropriating funds for ex i sting p rograms t hat
provide disaster relief and capitaliz e capaci t y r e d u c t i on for the U.S. fishing industry.
Funding for m any o f t hese programs ranges from l ess t han $10 million t o m ore t han $100
million. Unreliable numbers can lead to ex ce s s i v e funds, m oney u sed i nefficiently, o r
insufficient funds to achieve program objectives . The last published estimate of the
National M arine Fisheries Service (NMFS , National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration, Department of Commerce) stated that 273,700 persons were employed1
as commercial fishermen in 1988. In contrast, t he Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated
the number o f “fishers and fishing v essel operators” was 53,000 in 2000.
1 Fisheries of t he United States, 1989, ( Washington, DC: National M arine Fisheries Service, May
1990), p. 82. T his annual s u mma r y h a s n ot reported f isherman employme nt since t he 1989
edition, and NMFS has not conducted a n a nnual census of f ishermen by ve ssel a n d ge a r type,
fishery, port, etc., s ince 1974.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Who i s a Commercial Fisherman?
Basic t o t he problem of es timating t he number of commercial fishermen is the
difficulty in agreei ng on a definition o f w h a t constitutes a commercial fisherman. Any
definition of “commercial fisherman” m ust addres s whether or not part-time fishermen
and crew are incl uded and, if so, what reas onable criteria govern the l ev el o f p a rt-time
fishing o r i ncome t hat would qualify a person t o be recogn i z ed as a “com m erci al
fisherman.” In the only d efinition o f “commercial fisherman” i n federal law, §401(2) of
P.L. 95-372 2 broadl y defines a “commercial fisherman” as “any citizen of the United
States who o wns, operates, or derives i ncome from b eing e m p l oyed on a commercial
fishing v essel.”
There i s al s o t he gra y a r e a o f “recreat i onal ” fi sherm en who obt ai n com m erci al
fishing licenses s o t hat t hey are not constrai ned by recreational bag limits or so that they
c an s el l s om e o f t hei r cat ch t o defray r ecreat i onal fishing trip ex penses. S ome o f t h e s e
permits are federal but most are state-issued licenses. Thes e p erm itted vessels may
irregu larly report only a few pounds of catch.
Esti mati ng the Number of Commer c i a l Fi s her m en
At leas t t hree approaches have been used to es timate the number of U.S. commercial
fishermen: 1) Bu reau of Labor Statistics (BLS , Department of Labor) d ata; 2) fishing
vessel and license/permit data; and 3) ex trapolation from fish processor dat a. However,
each of the estimates h as its limitations.
BLS Data. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimated t he number of “fishers
and fishing vessel operators” was 53,000 in the year 2000. 3 More than 60% o f t h e s e
commercial fishermen were reported t o b e “ self- e mployed,” but “some j obs involved
sport fishing activities. ” T h u s , using the BLS es timate, commercial fishermen number
fewer t han 53,000 individuals.
Most BLS d ata for employment come from s tate reports on wage and s alary workers.
The U.S . Depart m ent of C o m m e rce’s Bureau of Econom i c Anal ys i s (BEA) t akes
information from BLS and combines t hat with Internal Revenue Service dat a t o m ake
estimates t hat are entered i n t he Regi onal E conomic In formation S ys tem (REIS ). One o f
the BLS sources has b een a rather s parse s ur vey o f house s tarts i n which BLS requested
the o ccupation o f t he person building t he house.
Limitations. BLS s urveys have some limitations in their accounting o f fishermen.
Some observers suggest that there are likel y t o be s ignifi cant numbers of commercial
fishing v essel crew m embers who d o not report t heir income and w h o “forget” to pay
tax es. Often crewmen are s eas onal workers, who may not stay more than a few trips on
any one vessel and may m ove from one port t o another; vessel o wners who send out the
2 T itle IV of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act Amendments of 1978 establishes t he
Fisherme n’s Continge ncy Fund.
3 [http://www.bls.gov/ oco/ocos177.htm] on August 1, 2002.
Service s tamped “moved, left no forwarding a ddress,” “no such person at this address,”
etc. There are others who m ay just be missed, due to h o w BLS s urveys workers,
charact eri z es occupat i ons, and defi nes “co mmercial fisherman.” Two additional reasons
may also result i n an undercount: 1 ) fishi ng vessel s kipper s a n d c r e w m embers are
generally self-employed and therefore o ft en do not show up in wage and s alary s ummaries
in state l abor reports; and 2) many commercial fishermen do not identify t hemsel ves as
fi shi n g v essel crew m em bers when report i n g t o t he IR S b ecause, for m any, crewi ng i s a
An Alaskan economics c o n s u l t i ng firm , Northern Economics, has s ought to
demonstrate t he problem with BLS d at a i n A l a ska, based o n 1997 data [ h ttp://
w ww.northerneconomics.com/html/topics .html] . The Alaska Department of Labor
reported 1,617 wage and s alary j obs in “fishing, forestry, and agriculture” i n 2000. That
infor m a t i o n was forwarded t o t he BE A where it was augmented with IR S d ata i n t he
REIS . The REIS data report 15,036 full and p a r t - time persons employed in fishing.
However, the S tate of Alas ka’s Commercial Fishing Entry C ommission reports that
23,721 Alaska n s e i t h e r w e r e a c t i v e c o m m e r c i a l p e r m i t h o l d e r s o r p u r c h a s e d c r e w member
licenses i n 2000, with an additional 13,360 non -resident commercial fishing license
holders, for a t otal of 37,081 employed pers ons. W hile this is an upper-bound estimate,
it is more than double t he estimates i n t he BE A o r i n Alaska Department of Labor data.
Such disparity rai s e s m a ny questions about the accuracy and reliability of data being
Another i l l u stration o f t he reported undercount nationally is that the number o f
fishing v e s sels reporting fish and shellfish l andings i n 2000 ex ceeded the number o f
fishermen reported by BLS . Dr. Kathi Kitner of the S outh Atlantic Fi shery M anagem ent
Council, who h as been looking at the ex t ent o f t he 2000 Census undercount of fishermen
in South C arolina, conducted a special survey for t he Bu reau of the C ensus t o d escribe its
counting p roblems. She concluded t hat commercial fishermen were not easily counted
by standard census m ethods because the v essels from which these i ndividuals fished and
where m any o f t hem l i v ed were not enum erat ed. 4
Fishing V essel and License/Permit Data. NMFS reported t hat t here were
more than 70,388 vessels engaged i n commercial fishing in 1999, and about 66% of these5
were “boats” (i.e., under 5 net registered t ons). S i nce l arger v essel s employ several crew,
there are likely at l east 100,000 commercial f ishermen, b ased on vessel/boat d ata.
NMFS managers, who use fishing vessel l ogbook data, fishing practices, and other
sources, estimate that there are 150,000 t o160,000 active commercial fisherm en who
would d escribe t hemselves as commercial fishermen, p lus another 60,000 part-time6
commercial fishermen who work at o ther occupations. This latter group would i nclude,
4 Kathi R. K itner, Ethnographic Social Network Tracing Am ong South Atlantic Commercial
Fi shermen, Census 2000 Ethnographic Eva luation Report 5 (Charleston, SC: South Atlantic
Fishery M anagement Council), J uly 2001, 30 p.
5 Fisheries of t he United States, 2000, W a s h i n gt o n, DC: National M arine Fisheries Service,
August 2001, p. 94.
6 This estimate i s based on the number of a c t i ve c o mme r cial vessels (from state and f ederal
for ex ample, t he Marine Corps p ersonnel at C herry Point/Havelock, NC, who fish
comme r c i a l l y for crabs to supplement t heir service p ay, and Alaskan t eachers who fish
for s almon during t he summer. Even so, s ome Northeas t R egion NMFS s taff have said
that they think t his estimate may b e conser vative, based o n recent s urveys they have
Limitations. Estimates based on vessel and/or license/ p ermit numbers are
approx imate and likely l ow es timates b ecause certain s t a t es (e.g., T ex as, M aryl and,
Virginia) do not share dat a with NMFS on craft and landings. In addition, there i s little
information o n t he number o f undocumented commercial fishing vessels, but it is likely
quite large i n s ome s tates (e.g., Virgi nia, Maryland, New York, North C arolina, Fl orida,
Mai n e, Loui si ana).7 Another i ssue i s "double" regi stratio n where a boat i s registered i n
two states, e.g., North Carolina and Georgi a, to avoid paying out-of-state fishing license
fees. Another p roblem, e.g., i n Loui si ana, i s t h e u se of sm al l craft on an occasi onal b asi s
for s hrimping t o s upplement i ncome. Data co llected in New England include all v essels
which have l and e d fish/shellfish i n a New England port. As a res ult, a Gulf of M ex ico
vessel which happens to land fi sh/shellfish once i n New Engl and appears i n NMFS’s list
of “active” New England vessels. In summary, estimating even commercial fishing vessel
numbe r s i s n ’ t s imple, b ecause many of these vessels move around the coast, s witching
gear and s peci es harvest ed i n an effort t o i m p rove i n com e.
In response t o concerns about vessel/boat d ata, NMFS has revis e d i t s summary
information. In the early 1990s, s ome were s urprised to discover t hat, after t he passing
of only a few years, there h a d b e e n a o n e-third decline i n t he number o f commercial
fishing vessels/boats reported i n NMFS’s Fisheries of t he United States. N MFS m anagers
permits), estimated crew from t he type of vessel and fishery, and seasonality of fishery. Many
of these commercial f ishermen, like small farmers, supplement t heir income with other j obs, but
they vi ew themselves as fishermen f irst. T here is potential f or o ve r e s timating here, as vessels
stack licenses or one crew may s ervi ce two or t hree vessels, but attempts have been made to take
that into account. Personal communication from Peter Fricke, National M arine Fis heries Service,
7 Undocumented vessels are t hose l ess t han 5 net regi stered tons ( n r t ) , and t hus need not have
Coast Guard documentation. T his undocumented f leet is regi s t e r ed by the s tates under t heir
motor-boat r egulations. Unless a fishing permi t i s tied directly to a boat r egistration number or
the state has a special regi stration category f or co mmercial boats, t here is difficulty in identifyi ng
those s tate-r egistered vessels which engage i n commercial f ishing. Since boat documentation by
states is normally done by their Department of M otor V ehicles (DMV ), rather than their f isheries
divi sion, the i ssue o f i d e ntifyi ng which boats are used i n commercial f ishing is often s een by
DMV a s a non-issue. Where a vessel under 5 nrt has Coast Guard documentation, its use i s easily
identified. Because of the passenger-vessel r ules, t he charter and party-boat f leet is documented
by the Coast Guard. NMFS, Coast Guard, a nd the s tates undertook a maj or revi ew of errors in
reporting due to regi stration i ssues about seven years ago, and the data are more complete now.
Under t he Atlantic Coastal Cooperative Statistics Progr am, t he states, t he Atlantic States Marine
Fisheries Commi ssion, and NMFS have been tryi ng to coordinate and harmonize data on vessels,
fishing permits, and landings, but problems r emain. For example, i t i s difficult to measure striped
bass fishing effort on Chesapeake Bay because Maryland landing records are kept by water-body
( e.g., the Patuxent Rive r) rather than by place or port of l anding or by ve ssel, whose r egistration
would tie it to an indivi dual and place. Personal communication f r o m P e t e r Fricke, National
Marine Fisheries Servi ce, September 18, 2002.
reported t ha t t h e r e asons for t hese changes were: 1) NMFS had b een unhappy with the
quality of statistics received from certain stat es and d ropped d ata from t hose s tates, and
2) NMFS had m ade a concerted effort to eliminate double, triple, et c. count i n g associ at ed
with vessels appearing i n t he records of m ultiple stat es .
Fish Processor Data. Another way of es timat i n g t h e number of commercial
fishermen i s t o use the ratio between fish proces s o rs and fishermen as being
approx imately 1:2+.8 Since BLS reported s ome 86,000 fish processors and p ackers i n
2000 working i n 4,700 plants, t his would i ndicate m ore t han 172 , 000 commercial
fi sherm en. The d at a o n p rocessors and p ackers i s fai rl y accurat e because payrol l d at a and
physical head counts are available.
Limitations. Technological changes as well as changes in the volume o f
import/ex port t rade can alter t he ratio between commercial fishermen and t he number o f
processors required t o h andle t he catch. Because of these variables, t his estimate is likely
t o be of m argi n al accuracy.
Options for Addr essing Concerns
NMFS has received s ome funding to design and conduct a p i l o t - s t udy for a
census/demographic s urvey o f commercial fish ermen, after which funds will be sought
for a national p rogram. T he NMFS approach may b e m odeled after the “rural life/farm
community” census o f t h e U . S . Department of Agriculture (now done by the USDA,
rather than the Bureau of the C ensus) from which rural farm, community, employm ent on
and o ff farm s, and i ncom e d at a are deri ved b y U S DA’s E conom i c R esearch S ervi ce, for
use b y al l US DA agenci es.
Northern Economics, an Alas kan economics consulting firm involved i n t his area for
several years, has p roposed revising the way that fishing employm ent d at a i s c ollected.
The firm s uggests amending t h e M agnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and
Managem ent Act t o requi re t h at NMFS col l ect commercial fishing employment data and9
provide funding for s uch an effort.
This issue of how to better count commercial fishermen a l s o r a i s e s a s et of often
difficult problems related to whether o r not to count fishing v essel crew m embers as
employees. However, t hat approach would not address t he problems o f h aving n o s et
8 T he process worker:fishermen r ati o i s d e r i ved from data NMFS and the Bureau of
Fisheries/Bureau of Commercial f isheries have collected and r eported over t he years. Between
1920 and 1940, this ratio was 1:1.3; in 1950, it was 1:1.6; in 1960, it was 1:1.4; in 1970, it was
1:1.6; in 1980, it was 1:1.9; in 1985, it was 1:2.1; and i n 1988, it was 1:3. Use of a c urrent ratio
of 1:2+ processors/dealers/wholesale employees to fishermen i s based on community profiles t hat
NMFS has developed, knowledge of c hanges in fish processing, and changes i n f ishing practices,
su c h as the marketing switch from frozen t o fresh halibut followi ng the i mplementation of
indivi dual f ishing quota progr ams i n Alaska, the c losure of U.S. tuna processing plants but the
retention of many t una vessels in the U.S. f leet, and the move t o at-sea, block-freezing of f ish f or
export and later processing by overseas buyers. Personal communication from Peter Fricke,
National M arine Fisheries Service, August 7, 2002.
9 See [ http:// www.northerneconomics.com/ html/topics.html ].
wages, no set time period for wages, b eing covered under t he J ones Act for i njuries and
m edi cal probl em s, and (as an em pl o ye e ) b eing covered b y W orkmen’s Compensation,
with em p l o yers paying unemploym ent on t hem.10 The eventual s olution t o t his i ssue
appears t o h inge on finding the answer t o how one might bet t e r i d e n t i fy and count
transient and seasonal workers.
10 In some states (Maine, f or example), f ishing vessel crew cannot collect unemployment.