NOAA warns of impact of rising temperatures in GOA

Cod fishery disaster in the Gulf could well be a trend of the future

A top federal fisheries biologist has both bad news and good about the dilemma of Pacific cod in the Gulf of Alaska.

Sea temperatures are expected to rise and marine heat waves become more common, NOAA Fisheries research biologist Steven Barbeaux told participants in the 2020 Alaska Marine Science Symposium in Anchorage on Tuesday, Jan. 28.

The Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod fishery disaster, which was declared a disaster and not fished commercially 2019 could well be a trend of the future, according to Barbeaux, who is with NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. 

On one hand the future looks bleak for cod in the Gulf of Alaska, where sustainable harvest may be greatly reduced as temperatures rise, but there’s also good news, he said.

That is improved communication and cooperation among stakeholders, increased coordination of researchers, development in understanding of basic Pacific cod biology, and an increased awareness of the potential impacts of climate change.

Barbeaux was one of several dozen researchers and graduate student presenters at the annual symposium organized by the North Pacific Research Board in Anchorage.

He began with a look back to an unprecedented warming event in the North Pacific Ocean of 2014 to 2016 that triggered changes in the ecosystem of the Gulf of Alaska and had a huge impact on fisheries management.

The marine heatwave, he said, was noteworthy in its geographical extent, depth range and persistence, with evidence of shifts in species distribution and reduced productivity.

Groundfish surveys conducted in 2017 indicated that Pacific cod in the Gulf of Alaska had a 71 percent decline in abundance since the 2015 groundfish survey. Pacific cod fishing in the Gulf had supported a $103 million fishery in first wholesale value, which was 29 percent of the groundfish harvest value in the Gulf.

Federal fisheries managers reduced the allowable biological catch for the 2018 fishery by 80 percent, and the resulting fishery landings value was reduced to $32 million, Barbeaux said.

The 69 percent decrease from the 10-year average proved a substantial loss for the region.

Then on Sept. 25, 2019 the Gulf Pacific cod fishery was declared a disaster by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Biologists hypothesize that the disaster can be attributed to an increase in metabolic demand in Pacific cod and reduced prey available to eat during the extended marine heat wave, he said.

Although increase mortality likely led to the decline in the Pacific cod population, historically low recruitment, concurrent with the heat wave portends a slow recovery for the stock and gives a preview of impacts facing that region due to climate change.

That marine heat wave, which began in the winter of 2013-2014, induced broad-scale ecosystem responses in the years that followed, said Robert Suryan, an ecology researcher with the Alaska Fisheries Science Center.

Suryan cited the work of Gulf Watch Alaska, the long-term ecosystem monitoring program of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council over the marine ecosystem impacted by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster in Prince William Sound. Data gathered by Gulf Watch Alaska demonstrates the broad impact of the heat wave from offshore pelagic to nearshore intertidal species in the Gulf, he said.

While the physical impact of that heat wave began to dissipate throughout the Gulf by 2017 another heat wave re-intensified from late 2018 to 2019, he said. The continuing work of Gulf Watch Alaska and other research programs are expected to provide a collective assessment of Gulf ecosystems in the future, and potential impacts on resource recovery, fisheries and local communities, he said.

Earlier in the gathering, Cisco Werner, chief science advisor for NOAA Fisheries, discussed rapidly changing ocean conditions and the path forward.

“We need to be ready and prepared to deal with surprises, to sample, count and make decisions differently,” Werner said.

What steps could have been taken, had researchers been able to predict the 2014-2016 warming of Northeast Pacific waters is unknown, but it would have been good to be able to predict them, he said.

Scientists have to now manage for variability, not stability, which is key to adaptation, and strategies are needed to dampen the highs and lows affecting livelihoods, logistics and economies, he said.

Werner’s role with NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service is to lead efforts providing the science needed to support sustainable fisheries and ecosystems, end overfishing, rebuild fish populations, save critical species and preserve vital habitats. His research has included the development of numerical models of ocean circulation.

Sebastien De Halleux, chief operating officer of Saildrone, gave the symposium an update on the collaborative work his company is doing in partnership with NOAA and NASA scientists, collecting in-situ ocean data using autonomous unmanned surface vehicles. Saildrone designs, manufactures and operates a global fleet of wind and solar powered ocean drones that monitor the state of the planet in real time. Saildrone’s mission is to measure planetary systems affecting humanity, including extreme weather, global fisheries and carbon fluxes.

The Saildrone fleet has allowed scientists to quantify heat and carbon fluxes, study fish biomass distribution, monitor right whales, follow the path of individually tagged fur seals and collect extensive amounts of oceanographic data from remote areas of the Bering and Chukchi seas to the marginal ice zone, areas where it would be difficult and dangerous for people to travel.

Maija Katak Lukin, superintendent of the National Park Service’s Western Arctic National Parklands, spoke about climate change int Krusenstern National Monument, Kobuk Valley National Park and the Noatak National Preserve.

Lukin, who is Inupiag, was born in Kotzebue and raised on the shores of what is now Cape Krusenstern National Monument at Sisualik. Her career has also include serving as regional communications director for NANA Regional Corp., environmental program manager for the 12 consolidated tribes of Maniilaq Association and former mayor of Kotzebue.

Many area residents still live off the land, which is why subsistence in these parklands is important, and it is important for researchers to connect with knowledge holders, descendants of indigenous people who have used these resources for thousands of years, she said.

Lukin noted that the Great Wall of China was built 500 years ago and the famous Stonehenge monuments in England were built 5,018, but that the Inuit were hunting caribou and seals in Northwest Alaska as far back as 13,800 years ago.

“The tools change, but the traditions remain the same,” she said.

The Arctic network of the National Park system is seeing direct impacts of global warming, including the loss of thick river ice for safe travel by snowmobile and dog sled between communities that have no connecting roads.

Overland winter travel is important, but with the uncertainty of the thickness of the ice, there is more costly travel by air now, she said.

Warming temperatures have had an impact on the Western Arctic Caribou Herd, which has declined to just 200,000 animals, and the lack of thick sea ice is forcing hunters to travel much farther to hunt for bearded seals, she said.

Underwater archaeologist Andrew Pletruszka of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego spoke about remote-sensing efforts in the waters off Kiska Island in the Aleutian Chain to locate and document World War II-era submerged archaeological sites. Kiska was occupied for a time during the war by Japanese soldiers and Pletruszka is the lead archeologist for Project Recover, a 21st century collaborative effort to find and repatriate Americans missing in action since World War II and give closure to their families. Much of the war infrastructure is still on that island, still a time capsule, he said.Their hope is to locate some of those still missing in action and return their remains to their families, he said. More about Project Recover is online at projectrecover.org