With the lowest recorded Pacific cod numbers in years, all federal directed Pacific cod fisheries in the Gulf of Alaska will be closed for 2020.
“It’s about 30% of our yearly income,” Capt. Eddie Perez said of the fishery. Perez, who co-owns the F/V Caporal with his father will have to fish tanner crab to replace the lost income from the cod fishery closure, he said.
Pacific cod numbers are low enough that the National Marine Fisheries Service is required by regulation to close the fishery to protect Steller sea lions, an endangered species that feeds on Pacific cod.
“We are on the knife’s edge of this overfished status,” said Council Member Nicole Kimball during the weeklong annual North Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting.
The council, a governing body that manages federal fisheries, voted to reduce allowable cod harvests for the federal fisheries.
The amount decreased from the maximum allowable amount of 10,719 metric tons to 6,431 metric tons, a 40% reduction, to control cod catches that are taken incidentally in other fisheries, according to Julie Bonney with the Alaska Groundfish Data Bank.
The quota “provides very small allocations. I think it will certainly constrain harvest, but it will still cover a low amount of incidental cod in … fisheries that makes it workable,” Kimball said, referring to the necessity of such a small catch limit for the fishery’s survival.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the closure is not due to overfishing: It is due to a biological trend scientists say could turn around if environmental conditions improve.
“This closure is unprecedented,” Council Member Jim Balsiger said in a statement. “We have great concerns for the cod stock in the gulf, and for the coastal communities who depend on the cod fishery for economic well-being.”
The decision to close the fishery comes after several years of decreasing catch limits, according to Mary Furuness, a supervisory fishery management specialist at the National Marine Fisheries Service.
The 2019 total allowable catch was 12,368 metric tons compared to 13,096 metric tons in 2018 and 64,442 metric tons in 2017 and 71,925 metric tons in 2016, according to NOAA data.
In 2019, 64 vessels fished for cod, down from 170 in 2018 and 255 in 2017.
Significantly lower cod numbers were recorded following a heat wave from 2014 to 2017. Experts suspect that the cod population had a much higher mortality rate during these years because of a sharp drop in the number of cod in their surveys, according to Steve Barbeaux, an Alaska Fisheries Science Center research biologist.
The warmer temperatures increased the metabolism of the fish, causing them to feed faster and quickly deplete their food sources, he said. In addition, higher temperatures lead to fewer cod larvae, and thus fewer fish maturing into the fishery.
A new heat wave with higher temperatures than the last, appears to be forming in the Gulf of Alaska, he said.
“We don’t know what the impact of this current heat wave will be on adult Pacific cod,” Barbeaux said. “It appears that larvae production from this past spring have been depressed as all survey effort has shown very few age-0 (young) Pacific cod in the Gulf of Alaska.”
The council will reassess the gulf’s Pacific cod fishery next December to see if numbers have increased with the council’s precautionary measures.
However, reassessing the fishery will be difficult since no Gulf of Alaska bottom trawl survey is scheduled for 2020. Also without a directed fishery, there will be limited data collection.
Gordon Kruse, the co-chair of the Scientific and Statistical Committee which advises the council on management plans and sets acceptable biological catches, recommended that Pacific cod data be collected in the state-waters Pacific cod fishery, if open, and within non-directed fisheries that catch cod incidentally.
Officials from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game have not yet decided if they will open the Pacific cod fisheries in state waters up to 3 miles offshore.
In addition to fishermen, processors also will have to make changes to what they fish and process to make up for the loss of Pacific cod harvests.
“It’s going to affect us pretty substantially,” said Ocean Beauty Seafoods Plant Manager James Turner of the closure. “A lot of crew is going to have lack of wages because of the lack of cod.” To make up for the lack of cod, Turner said the plant will have to process larger numbers of fish from other species such as flatfish, rockfish, pollock, halibut, black cod and crab.
Theresa Peterson, fisheries policy director at the Alaska Marine Conservation Council who has been following this issue closely, said the outcome of the meeting was unexpected.
“It’s going to be very difficult for fishermen,” Peterson said. “The impacts will be different for different sectors and processors.”
Pot and jig gear fishermen, who historically have a low amount of incidental catch in non-cod fisheries compared to the trawl sector, will have little to no opportunity to harvest cod under a maximum retainable allowance, while fishing for other fish, she said.
“As currently regulated, under this scenario, with no directed Pacific cod fishery in the Gulf of Alaska, the unharvested sector allocations to the pot and jig sectors will roll (over) to incidental catch in other gear types as needed,” Peterson said.