Guest Writer: Marie Logan

Tsunami Waves Aggravate Problems of California Fishing Communities – What We Can Do to Help?


March 17, 2011 6:30 a.m.

Our hearts go out to those fighting for survival in Japan this week in the aftermath of the most powerful earthquake to hit the nation in recorded history. While the eyes of the international community are on the country’s recovery efforts, many in the Bay Area may not realize that the massive quake has had effects here at home too.

The earthquake – currently reported to be the seventh largest on record – spawned a series of tsunami waves that raced across the Pacific Ocean at 500 mph, reaching California’s coasts around 8 a.m. on the morning of March 11 and recurring throughout the day. Although the size of the waves was small in comparison to Japan’s 30-foot waves, surges of up to a reported 8 feet caused major damage to fishing ports along the West Coast.

These waves are called inundating waves, meaning the water surges on shore and stays there longer, more like a large glass of spilled liquid than the constant push-pull of a typical surf along the coastline.

In Crescent City, it’s been reported that over 30 boats were crushed in the harbor and many of the docks were destroyed. In Fort Bragg, a series of four-foot waves ripped out docks and caused many boats to collide from the surge. Santa Cruz saw the sinking of 17 boats, and as many as 50 others were damaged. Additionally, four people were swept out to sea by the tsunami in California, and one is feared dead. Altogether, the cost of tsunami damage here in California is expected to top $50 million. Governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency in four California counties as a result.

But the disheartening reality is that last week’s tsunami was only the latest obstacle to fishing communities here in California. Even before the economic downturn in 2008, many in the fishing industry (and smaller-scale producers, in particular) were struggling. Take the example of California salmon fishermen. Poor water management in California and climate change impacts have contributed to a serious decline in populations of California salmon, which has resulted in the loss of an estimated 72,000 jobs on the West Coast in the last 20 years. Talk about downsizing!

Meanwhile, an inflexible new fishing management policy called “catch shares” is being implemented across the West Coast this year. It works by assigning fishermen an allotment of fish to catch; unfortunately, the structure of the program favors the largest corporate fishing interests. The impacts of this policy have yet to be quantified, but have been devastating in other U.S. historical fishing communities. For example, in New Bedford, Massachusetts, 253 boats out of 500 are now just sitting at the docks five months after a similar policy was enacted there last summer. “Catch shares” programs are forcing smaller fishermen out of the business and wages have plummeted for those still able to find work fishing.

With so much bad news in the fishing industry, what can you or I do to support our local fishing communities and help maintain our working waterfronts? First of all — support your local fisherman! Do what you can to choose local, U.S.-caught seafood and remember that seafood has seasonality just like farmer’s market produce does. Check out this site by our friends at the Institute for Fisheries Resources to find out the types of fish that are seasonal in your region. Also check out Food & Water Watch’s Smart Seafood Guide to learn about choices that are good for you and the planet. Donate to the relief and recovery efforts – in Japan, and to our fishing communities here in California.


Marie Logan is a research and policy analyst for the Fish Program at Food & Water Watch. Based in San Francisco, she focuses on open ocean aquaculture, seafood safety and sustainability, and eco-labeling programs for seafood.

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