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Commercial Fishing

Fisheries offshore Santa Barbara County, and offshore southern California, contain a diversity of species due, in part, to the mixing of warm southern water and cooler northern water in the Southern California Bight. Approximately 550 species of fish inhabit or pass through these waters. Point Conception, located within Santa Barbara County, is a unique area due to the fact that the waters offshore serve as a point of convergence for species that inhabit colder northern waters and those of warmer southern waters. As such, Point Conception and the Santa Barbara Channel serve as spawning and rearing areas for approximately 64 species of commercial fish and shellfish throughout the year.

Characteristic oceanic circulation in, and sources of water of, the Southern California Bight (Browne 1994)
Source: Minerals Management Service (MMS OCS Draft EIS/EA 2001-046, pg. 4-35)

The commercial fishing industry is well established and economically important to Santa Barbara County and the region. The following table below indicates the pounds of commercial fish landed in the Santa Barbara reporting area (Santa Barbara, Ventura, Oxnard and Port Hueneme harbors) for 1988 to 1998.

Many local fishers catch multiple commercial species using a variety of gear types as species composition and dollar value of fish and invertebrates varies from year to year depending on a variety of factors, including harvest regulations and restrictions, market demand, price, species availability and weather.

The California Department of Fish and Game regulates commercial fishers’ use of fishing techniques and equipment and places limits on the commercial species that are harvested. Commercial species include abalone, anchovy, crab, hagfish, halibut, lobster, mackerel, prawns, rockfish, sablefish, salmon, sea cucumber, sea urchin, shark, sole, shrimp, swordfish, tuna, white croaker, white sea bass, and thornyhead.

Different commercial fishing techniques and equipment are used to harvest commercial fish species, depending on the target species being sought during a particular season of the year. A brief description of the techniques and equipment used to harvest commercial species is provided below.


Divers commercially harvest urchins and sea cucumbers offshore Santa Barbara County. At one time, divers also harvested black, green, white, pink and red species of abalone. In 1993, the commercial harvest of black abalone was banned due to severe depletion of the stock due to the fatal disease called “withering foot syndrome.” In 1996, the commercial harvest of green, pink and white abalone was banned due to decreasing stocks resulting from natural causes, fishing pressure and pollution. In 1997, a five-year moratorium was placed on the commercial harvest of red abalone was enacted. In 1998, all abalone harvests were banned south of San Francisco in 1998. When harvesting sea cucumbers and urchins, divers typically use long air hoses attached to an onboard air compressor to supply them with air. Doing this eliminates interruptions associated with having to make multiple air tank changes on a typical scuba system since sea cucumber and urchin divers harvest by hand and are under water for many hours each day.


This method is used to target species such as swordfish and shark. Often, an airplane will accompany a boat in order to locate the target species. Overall, the region’s harpoon fleet has declined since the 1990s due to the use of gill nets for these species and a decline in market prices.


Longlines consist of fishing lines with hooks attached at regular intervals. These rigs can be weighted for use on the surface, at midwater, or along the sea floor. In California waters, longline rigs used on the surface of the ocean (commonly called “surface”, “drift”, or “pelagic” rigs) of the type used to catch billfish and tuna elsewhere is prohibited. However, a variety of non-surface longline setups is used depending on water depth and location. Fisheries located near shore where species such as cabezon, sheephead and a variety of rockfish are located in water depths up to 60 feet, limit each longline to no more than 15 hooks. Boats operating in these areas are limited to a maximum of 150 hooks.

  • Set Longline – These are deployed along, or near, the ocean floor. The are held in place by anchors. Floats and weights allow for the adjustment of the line’s depth.Longlines may contain hundreds or thousands of hooks, unless restrictions exist in certain areas. This method is used to target rockfish such as boccacio, and reef fish such as cabazon and lingcod, and sablefish.
  • Stick Gear – These longlines are used in near-shore fisheries. This type of longline consists of a series of hooks attached to a weighted rod. The gear is placed on the ocean floor, then jigged. This method is used primarily to harvest squid.
  • Vertical Longline – These are deployed in areas where rocky outcrops, seamounts, underwater canyon walls or other hardbottom areas where seafloor features cause fish to “stack” vertically in the water column. The bottom of this type of longline is weighted to hold it in place. Up to 200 hooks are fastened to it at regular intervals and the top of the line is attached to a buoy. The line is deployed in a fashion that allows the buoy to drift with the current past the vertically concentrated fish. After a period of time the line is retrieved and either rebaited or the fisher moves to another location, depending on the success of the catch.

Gill Netting:

  • Drift net – This method is used to target species such as swordfish and shark. This technique employs a net of up to 1.5 miles long that is attached to a fishing vessel with the other end attached to a buoy (sometimes both ends are attached to buoys). The nets are fished at the surface to a depth of approximately 40 feet.
  • Stationary (set net) – This method is used primarily in shallow water up to 180 feet, however, deeper waters are beginning to be fished using this method. Species targeted using this method include halibut, rockfish, sea bass and shark. Set nets are anchored to the ocean floor at both ends and can be set to a certain depth, depending on the species being sought. With the passage of Proposition 132 (1990), a Marine Resources Protection Zone was created that banned the use of set gill nets within three miles of the mainland (1 mile of the shoreline of the Channel Islands) in waters with a depth of 420 feet or less. The ban, affecting southern California waters, went into effect in 1994.

Purse Seining:

This method uses a large net towed behind a primary vessel with a skiff deployed to encircle the target species, close the open end of the net and return that end to the primary vessel. A winch on the primary vessel rapidly closes the bottom of the net and hauls its contents onboard. During net retrieval, the boat is immobile. This method is used to catch pelagic species that temporarily concentrate in a certain area, such as anchovy, bonito, mackerel, sardines and squid. Spotter airplanes are often used to locate schools of these pelagic fish. Purse seining for squid is conducted at night using light boats to attract and harvest the catch. While searching for pelagic schools of target species, the purse seining vessels often follow erratic courses. This method is generally used in water depths of up to 150 feet.


Traps are usually placed in depths of less than 180 feet. Species targeted with traps consist of crabs, lobster and a variety of rockfish. Traps are set and weighted to hold them in place on the ocean floor. Traps are deployed for a period of days then retrieved. Buoys tethered to the traps mark their location. Fishers maintain multiple traps that may include several hundred in total strung from various trap “lines”. Fishers deploy their trap lines at varying location, depending on the success of the catch. Lobster is a species with a regulated fishing season (first Wednesday in October through the first Wednesday after March 15). As the season progresses, traps are moved into deeper water following the movement of this species. Crabs are trapped following the same pattern of deeper water as winter progresses, though a season is not specified and crabs are harvested year-round.


Trawling consists of the use of nets dragged at depth, or along the bottom, from approximately 240 feet to 2,400 feet. This technique is used for a variety of species, including prawns, rockfish, sea cucumbers, shrimp, and on a seasonal basis, halibut in State waters. This is a mobile fishery where a trawl net is towed behind a boat along a depth contour for several hours. Once the trawl course has been completed, the net is winched onto the boat. When the trawl nets are deployed, the trawl boats are difficult to maneuver. Once a trawler begins a run down a trawl course, any significant deviation from the pre-planned course may trigger the need for the trawl net to be reset. These nets may be up to a mile behind the boat and may be being dragged at depth or on the bottom.


Trolling consists of the use of lines with weights and baited hooks or lures pulled behind a vessel in open water. Species targeted using this method include albacore, bonito, halibut and salmon. Various setups are used depending on the species being targeted. Trolling activities are wide-ranging as trollers seek out migratory fish species.