NOAA researcher: Goal is to offer seafood harvesters more resilience to climate change

NOAA social science researcher Marysia Szymkowiak. Photo courtesy of Maryia Szymkowiak

Social scientist Marysia Szymkowiak’s research focus with Gulf of Alaska seafood harvesters is a lot of talk: telephone interviews and virtual workshops to learn how they feel their coastal communities can best adapt to climate change.

“I talk to fishermen about them becoming ambassadors of information,” she said. “About how much they use their own fish radio and network to exchange information. A lot of the conversations are on changes to salmon runs, decreasing size of fish, changes in stock combination, warming waters and how it might impact salmon fry and algae blooms.”

In this latest phase of her research work for NOAA Fisheries, Szymkowiak said her goal is to communicate harvesters’ views up through the NOAA Fisheries chain of command of command, and through presentations at fisheries meetings, including the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and ComFish, the annual commercial fisheries event at Kodiak.

“Since 2017 there has been a steady decline of fish in the Gulf; a number of salmon fishery disasters,” she said. “They are trying to make up for this by marketing their fish differently, direct marketing, like Sitka Salmon shares and Catch 49 (a program of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council), but that is not a strategy applicable to everyone.”

Her work at present is part of the three-year Gulf of Alaska Climate Integrated Modeling Socioeconomics — from Climate to Communities, which is to conclude some time in 2023. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Rutgers University, a master’s in international environmental policy from American University and a doctorate in marine policy from the University of Delaware.

Szymkowiak said she is optimistic that her research data will see tangible results because there is much interest from the Biden administration in building climate resilience in coastal communities.

Some harvesters have said privately that they are still waiting to see how all this research will play out, in actual fishery management changes, grants and loans to support the changes they say are needed, or simply accumulate more data to benefit academic research.

“I could understand why some fishermen may see some of this modeling as an academic exercise, but I have worked very hard to involve fishermen in the work that I am doing and have them be empowered through that process,” Szymkowiak said.

“I’ve been asked by fishermen to amplify their voices and that is what I am trying to do,” she said. “This work is providing a much-needed forum for fishermen to take the time and space to talk with each other about what needs to be done to make them more resilient. It’s also helping to point to what we need to do right now to make fishermen more resilient.”

Their ideas, she said, cut across science and communication, fisheries management, national and local policies and broader sociocultural issues.”

They have put forth ideas like reducing carbon emissions from diesel engines through hybrid models, building networks between scientists and fishermen for exchanging knowledge expediting policymaking within fisheries management bodies, developing climate scenario planning tools for fishermen and communities.

“But not everything can be done at once and fishermen need to have conversations about prioritization and mobilization of these ideas,” she said.

Questions being asked through the Gulf of Alaska Climate Integrated Modeling Socioeconomics study are how fishing fleets will respond to climate change, how these responses will affect fishing communities, and what tools stakeholders have and will need to adapt to these new challenges.

Economists and social scientists at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, University of Washington and Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission are to develop three interrelated models to address these three questions. Szymkowiak is the project lead for the adaptation model, which is to provide insight on human adaptation to climate change to shape responses to be incorporated into fleet dynamics and fisheries management models.

Researchers see this combined effort as a way to provide resource managers with insight into the impact of climate change on marine ecosystems and dependent communities.

NOAA scientists note that the Gulf ecosystem supports some valuable and diverse fisheries that annually produce $1.3 billion to $2.1 billion in first wholesale value, and other important recreational and subsistence uses.

The question is what lies in the future of these coastal fishing communities with warming ocean waters, decreases in ocean pH, sea level rise, changes in ocean circulation and stratification, and potential changes in species distributions, ecosystem productivity and food-web structure.

While the global pandemic continues, some fisheries economists see a potential silver lining in the increased demand for seafood in domestic markets and subsequent rising prices, up about $3 a pound in the seafood section of markets like Costco.

Szymkowiak said she plans to continue her NOAA research over the long term through bodies such as the North Pacific Fishery Management Councils Gulf of Alaska groundfish Plan Team and the cross-regional Catch Shares Working Group.