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Bering Sea cod fleet expected to double this year

January 12th 1:38 pm | Jim Paulin Print this article   Email this article  

The fleet of small boats fishing for cod in the Bering Sea could more than double this year, thanks to a fisheries crisis caused by a "high latitude heat wave" that warmed the waters of the Gulf of Alaska, also known as "the blob."

Last year, 24 vessels 58 feet long or less fished for Pacific cod with pots in state waters in the Dutch Harbor subdistrict, where there's no limit on the number of boats. This year, at least 50 are expected when the season opens within the next two months, according to groundfish biologist Asia Beber of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, in Unalaska/Dutch Harbor. Already, six boats have registered for Aleutian Islands state waters cod, up from four last year.

While it's still too early for boats to register for the Dutch Harbor subdistrict, Beber reported a high level of interest. "You assume that since they're asking question, they're coming to fish out here."

The small boat Pacific cod quotas for 2018 are down in the Bering Sea, but the decline is not nearly as drastic as in the Gulf of Alaska, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

It's the difference between a 16 percent drop in state waters in the Bering Sea, and an 80 percent decline in the Gulf..

The Dutch Harbor quota is 28.4 million pounds, and the Aleutian Islands' is 12.8 million, for a total of about 41 million pounds in state waters within three miles of shore in 2018, according to the Dec. 14 announcement.

That's more than the entire 2018 Gulf-wide quota for small boats, of 9.8 million pounds, an enormous drop from 48.4 million pounds in 2017.

Cod stocks are in the worst shape recorded by federal records, dating back to 1986, according to National Marine Fisheries Service biologist Krista Milani in Unalaska. But she expects better conditions in a few years, since water temperatures that rose a few degrees have returned to normal.

"We're fairly confident it's going to recover. Cod tends to be robust if the water temperatures stay where they're supposed to," Milani said.

But weather experts expect more of the same, according to a scientific article published this month in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, entitled "The high latitude marine heat wave of 2016 and its impacts on Alaska." It reported on a project of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Geological Survey.

Owing to the "trajectory of the present climate," indications are that "extreme anomalies like 2016 will become common in the coming decades." Human activity played a part in the creation of the blob, according to the meteorological society bulletin, which stated "the 2016 warm oceans anomalies cannot be explained without anthropogenic climate warming, although the region's large internal variability was also a contributing factor."

The term "blob" was coined by Washington State Climatologist Nick Bond, in another scientific journal, Geophysical Research Letters, in June, 2014. The two years of warmer water is blamed for common murres and other seabirds dying of starvation in massive numbers in coastal Alaska.

In a gloomy final paragraph in the BAMS article, co-authored by 14 scientists, the writers predict a future where "such warm ocean temperatures become common and not extreme in the GOA and Bering Region."

The alarming Gulf cod numbers prompted an outreach message to fishermen from the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, posted on the council's website in December, after it slashed cod quotas for 2018.

"The Pacific cod stock in the Gulf of Alaska has drastically declined. Scientific information suggests that this decline is the result of an unusually warm mass of water (the 'blob') that persisted from 2014 through 2016. The warm water increased the metabolism of cod while reducing available food, resulting in poor body condition and increased mortality," according to the NPFMC.

"The warm water also impacted cod egg production and larval survival, greatly reducing recruitment during these years. The lower number of adult and juvenile cod will affect the population and fishery for several years to come. Management of Gulf of Alaska cod is now focused on maintaining the spawning stock and increasing the likelihood that the fishery will remain viable in the future. Accordingly, catch limits for Pacific cod were set at very low amounts for 2018 and 2019," according to the NPFMC.

The NPFMC sets the federal offshore quota, using the same trawl survey information that determine state waters quotas.

Jim Paulin can be reached at jpaulin@reportalaska.com.

 

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