Order Code RS21312
September 19, 2002
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
How Many Commercial Fishermen?
Eugene H. Buck
Specialist in Natural Resources Policy
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
Current estimates of the number of U.S. commercial fishermen are suspect, yet
accurate numbers are important for forecasting and planning for the impact of proposed
legislation and programs, such as disaster relief and capacity reduction under the
Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Accurate figures can
help Congress predict budget implications and allocate limited budget resources for
these programs. Part of the problem lies with how “commercial fisherman” is defined
and how employment data are collected, and resolution may hinge on finding better
ways to identify and count people who work in a very fluid and transient industry.
Improved estimates of the number of U.S. commercial fishermen can improve the
ability of federal legislators and regulators to accurately forecast and plan for the impacts
of proposed legislation, such as amendments affecting disaster relief and capacity
reduction programs under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management
Act (P.L. 94-265, 16 U.S.C. 1801 et seq.). More accurate figures on numbers of
commercial fishermen can also assist Congress in predicting budget implications and
allocating limited budget resources in appropriating funds for existing programs that
provide disaster relief and capitalize capacity reduction for the U.S. fishing industry.
Funding for many of these programs ranges from less than $10 million to more than $100
million. Unreliable numbers can lead to excessive funds, money used inefficiently, or
insufficient funds to achieve program objectives. The last published estimate of the
National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS, National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration, Department of Commerce) stated that 273,700 persons were employed
as commercial fishermen in 1988.1 In contrast, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated
the number of “fishers and fishing vessel operators” was 53,000 in 2000.
Fisheries of the United States, 1989, (Washington, DC: National Marine Fisheries Service, May
1990), p. 82. This annual summary has not reported fisherman employment since the 1989
edition, and NMFS has not conducted an annual census of fishermen by vessel and gear type,
fishery, port, etc., since 1974.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Who is a Commercial Fisherman?
Basic to the problem of estimating the number of commercial fishermen is the
difficulty in agreeing on a definition of what constitutes a commercial fisherman. Any
definition of “commercial fisherman” must address whether or not part-time fishermen
and crew are included and, if so, what reasonable criteria govern the level of part-time
fishing or income that would qualify a person to be recognized as a “commercial
fisherman.” In the only definition of “commercial fisherman” in federal law, §401(2) of
P.L. 95-3722 broadly defines a “commercial fisherman” as “any citizen of the United
States who owns, operates, or derives income from being employed on a commercial
There is also the gray area of “recreational” fishermen who obtain commercial
fishing licenses so that they are not constrained by recreational bag limits or so that they
can sell some of their catch to defray recreational fishing trip expenses. Some of these
permits are federal but most are state-issued licenses. These permitted vessels may
irregularly report only a few pounds of catch.
Estimating the Number of Commercial Fishermen
At least three approaches have been used to estimate the number of U.S. commercial
fishermen: 1) Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS, Department of Labor) data; 2) fishing
vessel and license/permit data; and 3) extrapolation from fish processor data. However,
each of the estimates has its limitations.
BLS Data. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimated the number of “fishers
and fishing vessel operators” was 53,000 in the year 2000.3 More than 60% of these
commercial fishermen were reported to be “self-employed,” but “some jobs involved
sport fishing activities.” Thus, using the BLS estimate, commercial fishermen number
fewer than 53,000 individuals.
Most BLS data for employment come from state reports on wage and salary workers.
The U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) takes
information from BLS and combines that with Internal Revenue Service data to make
estimates that are entered in the Regional Economic Information System (REIS). One of
the BLS sources has been a rather sparse survey of house starts in which BLS requested
the occupation of the person building the house.
Limitations. BLS surveys have some limitations in their accounting of fishermen.
Some observers suggest that there are likely to be significant numbers of commercial
fishing vessel crew members who do not report their income and who “forget” to pay
taxes. Often crewmen are seasonal workers, who may not stay more than a few trips on
any one vessel and may move from one port to another; vessel owners who send out the
1099-MISC forms to crewmen report a significant proportion returned by the Postal
Title IV of the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act Amendments of 1978 establishes the
Fishermen’s Contingency Fund.
[http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos177.htm] on August 1, 2002.
Service stamped “moved, left no forwarding address,” “no such person at this address,”
etc. There are others who may just be missed, due to how BLS surveys workers,
characterizes occupations, and defines “commercial fisherman.” Two additional reasons
may also result in an undercount: 1) fishing vessel skippers and crew members are
generally self-employed and therefore often do not show up in wage and salary summaries
in state labor reports; and 2) many commercial fishermen do not identify themselves as
fishing vessel crew members when reporting to the IRS because, for many, crewing is a
An Alaskan economics consulting firm, Northern Economics, has sought to
demonstrate the problem with BLS data in Alaska, based on 1997 data [http://
www.northerneconomics.com/html/topics.html]. The Alaska Department of Labor
reported 1,617 wage and salary jobs in “fishing, forestry, and agriculture” in 2000. That
information was forwarded to the BEA where it was augmented with IRS data in the
REIS. The REIS data report 15,036 full and part-time persons employed in fishing.
However, the State of Alaska’s Commercial Fishing Entry Commission reports that
23,721 Alaskans either were active commercial permit holders or purchased crew member
licenses in 2000, with an additional 13,360 non-resident commercial fishing license
holders, for a total of 37,081 employed persons. While this is an upper-bound estimate,
it is more than double the estimates in the BEA or in Alaska Department of Labor data.
Such disparity raises many questions about the accuracy and reliability of data being
Another illustration of the reported undercount nationally is that the number of
fishing vessels reporting fish and shellfish landings in 2000 exceeded the number of
fishermen reported by BLS. Dr. Kathi Kitner of the South Atlantic Fishery Management
Council, who has been looking at the extent of the 2000 Census undercount of fishermen
in South Carolina, conducted a special survey for the Bureau of the Census to describe its
counting problems. She concluded that commercial fishermen were not easily counted
by standard census methods because the vessels from which these individuals fished and
where many of them lived were not enumerated.4
Fishing Vessel and License/Permit Data. NMFS reported that there were
more than 70,388 vessels engaged in commercial fishing in 1999, and about 66% of these
were “boats” (i.e., under 5 net registered tons).5 Since larger vessels employ several crew,
there are likely at least 100,000 commercial fishermen, based on vessel/boat data.
NMFS managers, who use fishing vessel logbook data, fishing practices, and other
sources, estimate that there are 150,000 to160,000 active commercial fishermen who
would describe themselves as commercial fishermen, plus another 60,000 part-time
commercial fishermen who work at other occupations.6 This latter group would include,
Kathi R. Kitner, Ethnographic Social Network Tracing Among South Atlantic Commercial
Fishermen, Census 2000 Ethnographic Evaluation Report 5 (Charleston, SC: South Atlantic
Fishery Management Council), July 2001, 30 p.
Fisheries of the United States, 2000, Washington, DC: National Marine Fisheries Service,
August 2001, p. 94.
This estimate is based on the number of active commercial vessels (from state and federal
for example, the Marine Corps personnel at Cherry Point/Havelock, NC, who fish
commercially for crabs to supplement their service pay, and Alaskan teachers who fish
for salmon during the summer. Even so, some Northeast Region NMFS staff have said
that they think this estimate may be conservative, based on recent surveys they have
Limitations. Estimates based on vessel and/or license/permit numbers are
approximate and likely low estimates because certain states (e.g., Texas, Maryland,
Virginia) do not share data with NMFS on craft and landings. In addition, there is little
information on the number of undocumented commercial fishing vessels, but it is likely
quite large in some states (e.g., Virginia, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Florida,
Maine, Louisiana).7 Another issue is "double" registration where a boat is registered in
two states, e.g., North Carolina and Georgia, to avoid paying out-of-state fishing license
fees. Another problem, e.g., in Louisiana, is the use of small craft on an occasional basis
for shrimping to supplement income. Data collected in New England include all vessels
which have landed fish/shellfish in a New England port. As a result, a Gulf of Mexico
vessel which happens to land fish/shellfish once in New England appears in NMFS’s list
of “active” New England vessels. In summary, estimating even commercial fishing vessel
numbers isn’t simple, because many of these vessels move around the coast, switching
gear and species harvested in an effort to improve income.
In response to concerns about vessel/boat data, NMFS has revised its summary
information. In the early 1990s, some were surprised to discover that, after the passing
of only a few years, there had been a one-third decline in the number of commercial
fishing vessels/boats reported in NMFS’s Fisheries of the United States. NMFS managers
permits), estimated crew from the type of vessel and fishery, and seasonality of fishery. Many
of these commercial fishermen, like small farmers, supplement their income with other jobs, but
they view themselves as fishermen first. There is potential for overestimating here, as vessels
stack licenses or one crew may service two or three vessels, but attempts have been made to take
that into account. Personal communication from Peter Fricke, National Marine Fisheries Service,
August 7, 2002.
Undocumented vessels are those less than 5 net registered tons (nrt), and thus need not have
Coast Guard documentation. This undocumented fleet is registered by the states under their
motor-boat regulations. Unless a fishing permit is tied directly to a boat registration number or
the state has a special registration category for commercial boats, there is difficulty in identifying
those state-registered vessels which engage in commercial fishing. Since boat documentation by
states is normally done by their Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), rather than their fisheries
division, the issue of identifying which boats are used in commercial fishing is often seen by
DMV as a non-issue. Where a vessel under 5 nrt has Coast Guard documentation, its use is easily
identified. Because of the passenger-vessel rules, the charter and party-boat fleet is documented
by the Coast Guard. NMFS, Coast Guard, and the states undertook a major review of errors in
reporting due to registration issues about seven years ago, and the data are more complete now.
Under the Atlantic Coastal Cooperative Statistics Program, the states, the Atlantic States Marine
Fisheries Commission, and NMFS have been trying to coordinate and harmonize data on vessels,
fishing permits, and landings, but problems remain. For example, it is difficult to measure striped
bass fishing effort on Chesapeake Bay because Maryland landing records are kept by water-body
(e.g., the Patuxent River) rather than by place or port of landing or by vessel, whose registration
would tie it to an individual and place. Personal communication from Peter Fricke, National
Marine Fisheries Service, September 18, 2002.
reported that the reasons for these changes were: 1) NMFS had been unhappy with the
quality of statistics received from certain states and dropped data from those states, and
2) NMFS had made a concerted effort to eliminate double, triple, etc. counting associated
with vessels appearing in the records of multiple states.
Fish Processor Data. Another way of estimating the number of commercial
fishermen is to use the ratio between fish processors and fishermen as being
approximately 1:2+.8 Since BLS reported some 86,000 fish processors and packers in
2000 working in 4,700 plants, this would indicate more than 172,000 commercial
fishermen. The data on processors and packers is fairly accurate because payroll data and
physical head counts are available.
Limitations. Technological changes as well as changes in the volume of
import/export trade can alter the ratio between commercial fishermen and the number of
processors required to handle the catch. Because of these variables, this estimate is likely
to be of marginal accuracy.
Options for Addressing Concerns
NMFS has received some funding to design and conduct a pilot-study for a
census/demographic survey of commercial fishermen, after which funds will be sought
for a national program. The NMFS approach may be modeled after the “rural life/farm
community” census of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (now done by the USDA,
rather than the Bureau of the Census) from which rural farm, community, employment on
and off farms, and income data are derived by USDA’s Economic Research Service, for
use by all USDA agencies.
Northern Economics, an Alaskan economics consulting firm involved in this area for
several years, has proposed revising the way that fishing employment data is collected.
The firm suggests amending the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and
Management Act to require that NMFS collect commercial fishing employment data and
provide funding for such an effort.9
This issue of how to better count commercial fishermen also raises a set of often
difficult problems related to whether or not to count fishing vessel crew members as
employees. However, that approach would not address the problems of having no set
The process worker:fishermen ratio is derived from data NMFS and the Bureau of
Fisheries/Bureau of Commercial fisheries have collected and reported over the 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 in 1988, it was 1:3. Use of a current ratio
of 1:2+ processors/dealers/wholesale employees to fishermen is based on community profiles that
NMFS has developed, knowledge of changes in fish processing, and changes in fishing practices,
such as the marketing switch from frozen to fresh halibut following the implementation of
individual fishing quota programs in Alaska, the closure of U.S. tuna processing plants but the
retention of many tuna vessels in the U.S. fleet, and the move to at-sea, block-freezing of fish for
export and later processing by overseas buyers. Personal communication from Peter Fricke,
National Marine Fisheries Service, August 7, 2002.
See [http:// www.northerneconomics.com/html/topics.html].
wages, no set time period for wages, being covered under the Jones Act for injuries and
medical problems, and (as an employee) being covered by Workmen’s Compensation,
with employers paying unemployment on them.10 The eventual solution to this issue
appears to hinge on finding the answer to how one might better identify and count
transient and seasonal workers.
In some states (Maine, for example), fishing vessel crew cannot collect unemployment.