Gulf research project will focus on fisheries, fishing communities

NOAA researchers forecast more rapid change in the Gulf than seen historically

Steller sea lions will be an item of interest to researchers in a new Gulf of Alaska ecosystem-based fishery management study. Photo courtesy of NOAA Fisheries

Federal fisheries researchers will embark on an Oct. 1 new ecosystem-based fishery management project in the Gulf of Alaska. The goal is to determine what the future might look like and how Gulf fishing communities can adapt.

Their work will be similar to a Bering Sea project, which concluded recently that ecosystem-based fishery management may help for the near term to ensure sustainable fisheries under climate change. This project, however, is designed to address environmental and fishery management issues important to the Gulf, said Martin Dorn, research fisheries biologist with the Alaska Fisheries Science Center and principal investigator for the project.

“The project will essentially be trying to project what the future might look like for the Gulf and try to figure out what implications are for marine resources in the area and how that might affect fisheries and how that (in turn) might affect the fishing communities,” Dorn said. “We’re trying to bring that whole package together.”

The three-year project is funded with a grant from the North Pacific Research Board in Anchorage, plus internal funds from NOAA’s fisheries and climate change program.

In addition to residents of coastal communities, the research team plans to collaborate with scientists in Canada, Australia and Tasmania.

“The reality is always that over the next decades there will be more rapid change in the Gulf than we have seen historically. The pace of change will increase, with potential large changes in ecosystem structure,” Dorn said. “We will be sending people to communities in Alaska to conduct interviews to understand the potential to adapt to change. Some results coming out of our study may indicate people might need a portfolio of different activities.”

The marine heat wave in the Gulf that lasted from 2013 through 2016 had quite a few impacts on the Gulf’s marine ecosystem, among them the crash of the Pacific cod population, which resulted in an 80 percent reduction in the P-cod quota for the Gulf, which in turn had a large impact on fishing opportunities.

“We want to better understand how that affected the ecosystem and whether that type of marine heat will occur in the future,” Dorn said.

Also unique to the Gulf is that it has the third largest accumulation of glaciers in the world after Antarctica and Greenland. Projections are that the glaciers surrounding the Gulf will be retreating and melting. That will mean more fresh water pouring into the ocean and a greater runoff. Researchers hope to determine how that will impact the ecosystem, the overall warming, decreased oxygen in the water and acidification of the ocean.

The project will also look at the impact of climate change on marine mammals in general, from sperm and humpback whales to Steller sea lions, since scientists also have evidence of a reduced number of Steller sea lion pups during the heat wave.

The other major objective, similar to the Bering Sea project, will be developing climate change and regional oceanographic models to know how the ocean is behaving and project those models forward into the future.

“Then you can look at how the environment is changing, Dorn said.

A lot of these models are like little experiments,” said Kirstin Holsman, a fellow Alaska Marine Science Center researcher who worked on the Bering Sea project and will have a role also in the new Gulf project. “It’s not just one tool, but using every tool you have and looking at the entire food web. With models we can create the future.”

Modeling will also include those including impacts on halibut, Pacific cod, Alaska Pollock, black cod, salmon and herring, to help the North Pacific Fishery Management Council maintain robust fisheries, as well as residents of coastal fishing communities.

“People are going to have to be flexible and adapt to changing conditions,” Dorn said. “A lot of Gulf communities are super dependent on marine resources. Their livelihoods are threatened.”

Then too, given that the Gulf is a bowl with land all around it, there is no way for fish to move north to cooler water while trying to adapt to changing conditions. And there are concerns that there may be invasions into the Gulf from populations of fish now further south, Dorn said.

“Maybe Pacific whiting or hake could move north,” he said. “Some of the rockfish populations might move north. Rockfish in the Gulf are more cool water adaptive. The rockfish would potentially compete for food and that would cause a shift in the populations.”

The population of black cod meanwhile has increased, and Dorn said that it seems there was a significant boost in black cod population during the heat wave.

“We don’t have any proof, but it is possible that sablefish do better under those conditions.,” he said.

Holsman said that on a global scale lessons learned from the Gulf research will help with international options for adaptation.

“I think we will learn a lot about how different communities adapt and that will tell us (scientists) how to produce meaningful science,” she said.