In a disappointing but not surprising move, the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council closed the Gulf of Alaska to Pacific cod fishing for the 2020 season at their meeting this month, the first time ever.
The bad news became acute in 2018 when the quota was cut by 80 percent after the 2017 summer trawl survey showed dismal numbers and poor recruitment. The GOA quota went down another 5 percent in 2019.
The future also looks grim for the stocks.
A stock assessment this fall put GOA cod populations at a historic low, with “next to no” new eggs, according to Steven Barbeaux, a research biologist with the NOAA, who spoke with KMXT public radio in Kodiak. At their current numbers, cod are below the federal threshold that protects them as a food source for endangered Steller sea lions. Once below that line the fishery shuts down.
Biologists are mostly blaming warming water temperatures due to climate change, especially the large patch of over-heated water in the North Pacific dubbed the “blob,” rather than over-fishing for the steep decline.
However, when the 2018 quota was announced, some fishermen said that if NOAA did trawl surveys every year instead of every other year, they may have foreseen the crash and adjusted the quota accordingly.
The “blob” first appeared in 2014, and the cod population in the GOA started its decline. Surface water temperatures warmed 4 to 5 degrees and young cod began dying off, according to scientists.
“A lot of the impact on the population was due to that first heat wave that we haven’t recovered from,” Barbeaux said during an interview last month.
Following the first heat wave, cod numbers crashed by more than half, from 113,830 metric tons in 2014 to 46,080 metric tons in 2017.
Things went steadily downhill from there.
“Retrospectively, we probably should have shut the fishery down last year (too),” Barbeaux said.
Cod only enter the fishery at age three, so the environmental effects on the fishery are somewhat delayed. There are now signs of a second warming event. Scientists like Barbeaux say it’s hard to predict what the future of the fishery will look like.
“We’re just well beyond what we’ve ever seen before. It’s this very unusual, warm event,” Mike Litzow, a NOAA fisheries ecologist based in Kodiak, told KMXT. “What the climate scientists are showing us, our best understanding is that this is going to be the new average within a short time frame.”
The GOA closure is expected to put more pressure on the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands Pacific cod fishery this year, although the Bering Sea quota is also down 14 percent. The
Aleutian Islands quota remains unchanged.
One thing that the cod crash has done, however, is help allow for an uptick in crab populations around Kodiak, where there will be a limited bairdi Tanner crab fishery this year.
There will be two areas open with a combined quota of 400,000 pounds, the minimum threshold for an opening, and will open Jan. 15.
There will be a 300,000 pound quota in the Eastern District and a 100,000 pounds in the Southeastern District.
Crabbers will be working on the tail end of a 2013 large year class, according to Alaska Fish Radio.
Natura Richardson, area management biologist for ADF&G, told AFR, “We first saw this big cohort from 2013 in the survey, and that’s kind of the cohort that we fished on in 2018 and 2019. And 2020 is probably going to be the last hit on this specific cohort.”
It does not appear that the fishery will be tapering off after this, though, as ADF&G has been following the largest recruitment event they have ever seen in the Westward region, according to Richardson.
“The next pulse in the water has definitely retained. And we saw the next pulse in the survey last year, and we saw them again this year. So we have a lot of hope that they will continue to track through the population,” she said.
The crab also appear to be growing faster than usual.
Cristy Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org