New fisheries patterns emerge in warming waters

Koplin: There seems to be a historical inverse relationship between groundfish and shellfish

Climate change impacts, for better in some sectors and for worse in others, are becoming more evident in fisheries throughout Alaska, including the Gulf of Alaska and Prince William Sound.

“There seems to be a historical inverse relationship between groundfish and shellfish,” mused Cordova Mayor Clay Koplin. “With declining Pacific cod (biomass) it gives further evidence of what looks like greater evidence of more shellfish, particularly crab and shrimp in Prince William Sound, which is why we think it is important to revisit historic fisheries that have been closed for 35 years in the northern area of Prince William Sound and Hinchenbrook Island.

“We don’t get any Gulf cod,” said Koplin. “We get state waters cod, maybe 200,000 pounds last year, if that. There haven’t been that many deliveries.  If they don’t make money on cod, it puts more pressure on them for their other fisheries.”

In years past the bulk of the Pacific cod harvested in the Gulf of Alaska was processed in Kodiak. Pacific cod stocks have declined so dramatically in the Gulf that the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, during its December meeting in Anchorage, ruled out any federal cod fishery for the Gulf in 2020.  That is because when the biomass of Pacific cod falls below 20 percent of the long-term biomass of the Gulf of Alaska, the federal fishery must be closed to comply with Steller sea lion protection measures. The council also cut the total allowable catch of cod in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands fishery from 14,214 metric tons in 2019 to 13,796 MT for 2020.

Since Pacific cod prey on Tanner crab, their demise in the Gulf is likely to be good news for shellfish harvesters, who are waiting to hear if the Cordova area will get another commissioner’s permit Tanner crab fishery in the spring of 2020.

Meanwhile federal and state scientists are wading in unchartered waters to determine how rising ocean temperatures and increasing ocean acidification will impact all of Alaska’s fisheries.

“We are definitely in a strange period,” said Diane Stram, senior scientist with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, whose focus is the vast groundfish fisheries of the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands and the Gulf of Alaska.

“Some stocks like sablefish are doing well. Under some warming situations, Pacific cod could (also) do very well, but if the right zooplankton isn’t available to them under those warming water situations, they don’t do as well.  Right now it looks pretty bleak, but it is contingent on the strength of those year classes,” Stram said.

“We need to be more precautionary in our TACs (allocations of total allowable catch) said Rachel Baker, deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, who represents the state at NPFMC meetings in the absence of ADF&G Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang.

Meetings of the NPFMC, held five times annually, including one meeting in Seattle, cover a wide range of topics in various stages, from discussion papers introducing issues to final action on matters that may have been before the council for several years.

Groundfish specifications for the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands are always a priority at the December meetings, and it came as no surprised in the first week of December when the council cut the Pacific cod fishery out of the Gulf for 2020 and lowered the TAC for the BSAI. The council did vote, over the objections of longline fishermen and others, to increase the TAC for sablefish in the Gulf and BSAI. The council heard testimony from longliners that while there are more sablefish out there, it would benefit the industry more to allow more of them to grow to a larger and more profitable size than to harvest more small sablefish.

The council took initial action on reauthorization of the Central Gulf of Alaska rockfish program and a rebuilding plan for St. Matthew blue king crab, but took no action on a proposal for regulation of unguided rental boats, a matter of concern because there is no data available on how much fish anglers in the unguided halibut fishery are catching.

Several people testifying before the council remarked on the number of non-resident anglers observed shipping many boxes of sport caught fish outside of Alaska as they left after weeks of sport fishing. The true amount of halibut taken in the unguided sport fisheries is an unknown.