Stock decline leads to historic shutdown for Gulf P-cod

  • Workers at Island Seafoods in Kodiak fillet Pacific cod in this file photo. A federal disaster was declared for the 2018 Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod season after an 80 percent cut in the harvest quota, and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council has elected to close the federal fishery entirely in 2020. (Photo/File/AP)

Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod fishermen will be keeping their gear dry this winter: The federal fishery has been closed for the 2020 season.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council decided to close the fishery due to concerns about historic low biomass shown in the latest stock assessment. The spawning biomass available in the fishery has declined to less than the threshold where it can sustain a directed fishery and natural predation from Steller sea lions, which depend on Pacific cod as a keystone prey species.

The Gulf of Alaska cod stock has been declining for the last four or five years, with biologists drawing the connection to the increased water temperatures in the gulf since 2014. Warmer water conditions have led to lower abundance and fewer young cod in the population, according to the stock assessment.

“Female spawning biomass is currently estimated to be at its second lowest point in the 42-year time series considered in this assessment following last year’s record low,” the assessment states. “This following three years of poor recruitment in 2014-16 and increased natural mortality during the 2014-2016 (Gulf of Alaska) marine heat wave.”

Cod enter the fishery around three years old. While total biomass has been declining since 2014, it increased slightly in 2019 because of improved recruitment in 2017 and 2018. However, spawning biomass hit a cliff: survey results estimate about 32,957 tons for 2020, less than a third of what it was in 2014 and a historic low. This is below the 20 percent threshold for a fishery, and likely has been since the beginning of 2018, according to the stock assessment.

The population may improve in future years as younger fish move into the spawning biomass, but the 2019 age class is expected to be very weak, and biologists don’t know whether the average recruitment rate will apply in the future, according to the assessment.

The struggles of the stock have been linked to climate change more than excessive fishing. In 2014, the Gulf of Alaska experienced a major influx of warm water, linked to the El Nino event in the south Pacific. Sea surface temperatures remained above normal in a major section of the Gulf of Alaska for nearly two years afterward, earning the nickname “the blob.”

As the blob began to dissipate, Alaska saw another heat wave beginning in September 2018, where sea surface temperatures again spiked from the Gulf to the Bering Sea. Increased sea temperatures can stress fish and have been linked to reduced spawning and recruitment success.

Pacific cod, like most fish, are cold blooded. When the water temperature goes up, so do theirs, and their metabolisms along with it. That means they need to eat more, and it becomes easier for them to starve or stay smaller for longer if not enough food is available.

“Based on knowledge gained from the 2014-16 heatwave, we consider this to be unfavorable for Pacific cod as the prolonged increased temperatures likely increased their metabolic demands as well as the metabolic demands of their groundfish predators,” the assessment states. “Although as of 1 November 2019 the heatwave appears to have ended 12 October, it is unknown whether these lower temperatures will persist, particularly given the … forecast for warm conditions throughout the North Pacific through the upcoming winter.”

The Pacific cod fishery is valuable, both to fishermen and to processors. The fishery in the Gulf of Alaska is primarily shoreside based, unlike the mixed at-sea and shoreside fishery in the Bering Sea, and came in at about $70 million in e-vessel value in 2017, according to a economic status report from the National Marine Fisheries Service. However, stock concerns that year led the council to drop the total allowable catch limit by 80 percent, prompting then-Gov. Bill Walker to request a disaster declaration for the fishery.

There isn’t much to say about the fact of the closure except that it’s not good news for the fishermen, said Malcolm Milne, president of the Homer-based North Pacific Fisheries Association.

“Other than salmon, Pacific cod is the most important species to many Alaskan small boat fishermen especially in the winter when there are few other fisheries to substitute,” he said.

The communities in the western Gulf of Alaska, such as Kodiak and communities in the Aleutians East Borough, depend on fisheries year-round to sustain themselves, both as fishermen and processors. The Aleutians East Borough sent a resolution to the council asking the National Marine Fisheries Service to “make every effort to allow” a western gulf fishery in 2020.

The resolution states that fishermen have experienced good fishing for cod in the area and have been working on a voluntary catch share plan to help guarantee a season while not exceeding fishery limits.

“Fishermen and communities have suffered under recent low Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod TACs, and the difference between a small cod fishery in 2020 and no fishery at all could mean the difference between the survival of our communities or those communities closing their doors,” the resolution states.

In general, the Gulf Pacific cod harvest is much smaller than from the Bering Sea. In 2017, fishermen in Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands landed $178 million in ex-vessel value in Pacific cod, more than double the value of the Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod fishery in the same year, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

There are significant markets for Pacific cod in both Europe and the United States, but much of the exported cod goes to China as headed and gutted fish for reprocessing and re-export. About 30 percent of Alaska’s cod production stays in the U.S., according to the stock assessment.

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

12/11/2019 - 11:30am