A dramatic decline in Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod stocks forced regulators to hack the fishery’s total allowable catch by about 80 percent Saturday. The large cut will likely hit the commercial fishing industry in the Gulf hard.
The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which regulates groundfish in the Gulf and Bering Sea, made the move due to a roughly 70-percent decline in Pacific cod. Cod is Alaska’s second largest commercial fishery by volume, bringing in $186 million in 2015.
Doctor Steven Barbeaux works with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries division. Barbeaux told council members the decline is likely due to what scientists and the media refer to as “the blob,” a body of warm water that moved into the Gulf three years ago.
“That warm anomaly went all the way down to 300 meters. So, there was no place these cod really could go that they weren’t encountering these warmer temperatures,” Barbeaux explained.
Warm water boosts the metabolism of cod and other marine life, causing them to eat more. Increased demand on the food supply led to smaller fish, making cod more susceptible to predation and environmental factors. Warm temperatures were also tough on juvenile cod and stocks are expected to continue declining.
“Projected to reach an all-time low in 2020, so we’re not at the bottom of the barrel yet,” Barbeaux said. “We’re still going down due to high mortality of 2011, 2012 age classes and expected poor recruitment 2013, 2016.”
But it wasn’t all bad news. Barbeaux told the council that cooler waters are likely to move into the Gulf this winter, which will likely boost cod stocks if the pattern holds.
The council set the total allowable catch for cod in the Gulf at about 13,000 metric tons, down from about 64,000 metric tons in 2017.
Council member and Homer-based commercial fisherman Buck Laukitis expressed concern over how the decline in cod will shift fishing effort.
“The focus of Gulf of Alaska fisheries is likely to shift towards flatfish fisheries, and particularly a focus on arrowtooth flounder.”
The arrowtooth fishery is associated with a high level of halibut bycatch, which may be problematic. Halibut stocks are estimated to be down 20 percent. The council also reduced the allowable catch for arrowtooth by about 23,000 metric tons to protect halibut stocks.
Pacific cod stocks in the Bering Sea and along the Aleutian Islands saw a less significant drop of about 40 percent. The council reduced the allowable catch for 2018 by about 14 percent in those areas.