Fish Factor: Is it a blip, or are cod stocks returning?

Researchers see first signs of potential recovery with reappearance of tiny cod fish

NOAA Fisheries biologists Chris Magel, left, and Paul Iseri, proudly showing off their catch of age-0 Pacific cod at a Kodiak site covered in dense kelp. Photo courtesy of Alaska Fisheries Science Center

Tiny cod fish are reappearing around Kodiak.

Researchers aim to find out if it is a blip, or a sign that the stock is recovering after warming waters caused the stocks to crash.

Alaska’s seafood industry was shocked last fall when the annual surveys showed cod stocks in the Gulf of Alaska had plummeted by 80 percent to the lowest levels ever seen. Prior surveys indicated large year classes of cod starting in 2012 were expected to produce good fishing for six or more years. But a so called “warm blob” of water depleted food supplies and wiped out that recruitment.

That warm water was sitting in the Gulf for three years starting in 2014 and it was different than other years in that it went really deep and it also lasted throughout the winter. You can deplete the food source pretty rapidly when the entire ecosystem is ramped up in those warm temperatures,” explained Steven Barbeaux with the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle.

This summer, researchers at Kodiak saw the first signs of potential recovery with beach seine catches of tiny first year cod that are born offshore and drift as larvae into coastal grassy areas in July and August.

“A lot can happen in that first year of life that we would like to learn more about to predict whether or not these year classes are actually going to survive,” said Ben Laurel, a fisheries research biologist with the AFSC based in Newport, Oregon whose specialty is early survival of cold-water commercial fish species.

Laurel’s team, which includes scientists from the University of Alaska/Fairbanks, has been studying the early life history of Pacific cod in waters around Kodiak every year since 2005. They documented changes in what he calls “young of the year” fish throughout the warm water event through 2016. Right afterwards, they saw no first-year cod, but Laurel said things might be taking a turn for the better.

“In 2017 the ocean temperatures started to get back to normal and we did see signs of some fish, which is good because we hadn’t seen fish earlier,” he said. “In 2018 we also are seeing some young fish. But again, we’re just looking at one year in one area and it might not be reflective throughout the Gulf, so we are not sure what it means.”

Laurel is taking the tiny cod back to the Oregon wet lab where they will run tests on survival conditions.

“Do they have the likelihood of making it to adulthood just like those fish before the warm water blob? We just don’t know,” he explained. “We don’t have much data on cod during the winter and we can fill that gap in the lab. We can run them through a simulated over winter experience at different temperatures and see what the consequences are of them being a certain size or having certain food available, or what sort of conditions do they need to survive a whole overwintering experience,” he explained.

The cod study this summer also is expanding to more nearshore areas of Kodiak, along the Alaska Peninsula and the eastern Gulf. Laurel credited the AFSC with “really responsive reactions to this drastic reduction in the population,” and adding “more eyes and effort” to understand what happened to the cod stocks.

The research, he said, will provide a window into what might be expected with a changing climate.

“It is kind of a dress rehearsal for what is to come,” he said. “We can’t expect things to stay as they are, and we need to understand these processes and be proactive.”

Net hack challenge

An Alaska Net Hack Challenge is being planned for Sept. 8 and 9 in Kodiak and Anchorage. The goal is to identify potential opportunities for using the tons of old plastic fishing nets piled up in landfills and storage lots across the state and develop new items from the materials. The nets can weigh from 5,000 to 20,000 pounds each.

The challenge is based on the Circular Ocean program in the U.K. and Iceland that “aims to inspire enterprises and entrepreneurs to realize the hidden opportunities in discarded fishing nets.” The Alaska hack is sponsored by Grundens, Alpar and Saltwater, Inc.

“The goal is to change how people look at nets and ropes, not as a waste material but as a raw material that can be used in many ways,” said Nicole Baker, founder of www.netyourproblem.com and organizer of the event along with the Alaska Ocean Cluster Initiative.

The Alaska challenge is aimed at artists, students, designers, business owners, engineers, recyclers and anyone interested in designing new products out of the materials.

“On the first day of the challenge we will show presentations about the context and scale of the issue, the type of materials available, and some businesses that have been implemented already,” she explained. “On the second day, teams will get together and use the material and design a prototype, either physically or on a computer, that will be presented to judges to get their feedback.”

A video link will connect the two locations and judges will score the projects on creativity, usefulness and scalability and follow the development over six months.

“That will be supported by the Alaska Ocean Cluster Initiative which has several programs to assist with making small businesses and startups commercially viable,” Baker said.

“If Alaska gets on board, it could be another revenue stream,” added Brian Himelbloom, a retired University of Alaska seafood specialist who is organizing the Kodiak net hack challenge with an assist by the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.

“There are a lot of creative people in Kodiak,” he added, pointing to the Alaska Rug Company that uses fishing nets and ropes to make handwoven doormats, pot holders, baskets, bowls, signs, and more at their remote home at the decommissioned Port Bailey Cannery.

Himelbloom said the groups will reach out to local schools to attract “youngsters who are thinking about going into business.” They also are creating a net hack tool kit for remote communities interested in having their own challenges.

The events will take place at the Makerspace Building in Anchorage and at the Kodiak Marine Science Center. Visit www.alaskaoceancluster.com to register to attend.

Baker will be in Kodiak in late August to coordinate a fishing net recycling program. It will mirror a first effort last year in Dutch Harbor that sent 40 nets weighing 240,000 pounds to a company called Plastix in Denmark where they were melted down, pelletized and resold to manufacturers of plastic products.

A second shipment is being planned at Dutch Harbor. Baker said she has been contacted by people in Juneau, Homer, Seward and others who want to develop net recycling programs.

Fish watch

Alaska’s total salmon catch has topped 88 million fish – over 48 million are sockeyes and nearly 42 million of those 48 million reds are from Bristol Bay.

The Dungeness fishery in Southeast is ongoing with a summer harvest pegged at 2.25 million pounds.

Golden king crab opened along the Aleutians on Aug. 1 with a 6.3-million-pound harvest.

Halibut fishermen have taken 56 percent of their nearly 20-million-pound catch limit. For sablefish, 47 percent of the nearly 26-million-pound quota has been taken. Both fisheries close Nov. 7.

Fishing for cod, rockfish, flounders, pollock and other whitefish continues in the Bering Sea; likewise, in the Gulf where pollock fishing will reopen on Aug. 25.

The Alaska Board of Fisheries has set an Aug. 15 deadline to receive agenda change requests for its upcoming meeting cycle.

A special two-day meeting on Pacific cod takes place in early October.

Finally, more genetically modified Atlantic salmon grown in Panama has made its way to undisclosed markets. Last summer, Massachusetts-based biotech firm AquaBounty sold its first five tons of “Frankenfish” to undisclosed Canadian customers. The manmade fish grows three times faster than normal salmon.

AquaBounty received FDA approval this year to raise its AquAdvantage salmon at its new land-based Indiana facility, but is currently prevented from importing its genetically tweaked salmon eggs from Canada due to an “Import Alert” pending the issuance of final labeling guidelines.

“We anticipate the import alert to be lifted in the second half of this year,” CEO Ronald Stotish said in a press release.

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Laine Welch of Kodiak has been covering news of Alaska’s seafood industry for print and broadcast since 1991. Visit her website at www.alaskafishradio.com.