Blog

Ocean Currents

The Powerful Impacts of Climate Change on Fisheries

Reflections of a Gulf of Alaska fishermen amidst the COVID-19 crisis

Marona photo
© Theresa Peterson

Theresa Peterson is Alaska Marine Conservation Council’s (AMCC) longest serving staff person (14 years!), an active fisherwoman and long-time resident of Kodiak, home to the nation’s largest fishing fleet. Theresa has a diverse fishing portfolio: setnetting for salmon, fishing for tanner crab, longlining for halibut and jigging for cod. Fishing is a family business for Theresa and her husband Charlie and their three children. A tireless advocate for local fishermen, Theresa supports many aspects of AMCC’s Working Waterfronts and Fisheries Conservation programs and is active in community fisheries at a variety of levels. She formerly served as a voting member on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, an important and influential body in Alaska’s fisheries management decisions.

The opportunity to make a living in commercial fishing lured me to the place that would become the center of my universe 33 years ago. I live on Kodiak Island—a wind-blown, rugged wonder in the Gulf of Alaska (GOA).

Commercial fishing powers Kodiak’s economic engine. In 2018, the city of slightly more than 6,000 ranked 4th in the nation for seafood landings by volume (391 million), and 8th by value ($104 million). The resiliency of the fishing industry in the Kodiak Archipelago is, in large part, due to the diversity of species found around the island. Salmon, halibut, Pacific cod, sablefish, pollock, rockfish and numerous species of crab comprise the major fisheries.

Working as a seafood harvester in Alaska has always been associated with ups and downs of fish abundance and price. These uncertainties are understood, and fishing businesses work to mitigate the associated risks. The past few years, and this year especially, have been challenging for Alaska fishermen like me.

This year, the industry is dealing with something we didn’t foresee or have a plan for: COVID-19. Commercial fishing fleets and seafood processors are working with local, state and federal government bodies to create strict health mandates to both protect our supply chain and reduce the spread of the virus. We take our role as food producers in our nation’s essential workforce very seriously, and we’re doing everything we can to respond to this crisis and keep our businesses healthy and the supply of sustainable seafood flowing.

At the same time, we continue to face potentially devastating impacts from climate change on the species on which we depend. Resilient fishing communities like Kodiak are now vulnerable in ways we’ve never seen. We trust the COVID-19 crisis will pass, but the threat of climate change will require longer-term commitment to address.

The recent collapse of the Pacific cod stock in the Gulf of Alaska is one such scenario. The rapid decline was unexpected, and it came at the fleet like a sucker punch.

In 2018, there was an 80% decrease in the catch limit for Pacific cod from the previous year. Scientific information revealed that the decline of the stock was the result of an unusually warm water mass known as “the blob.” The blob continued from 2014 to 2016, and warming temperatures were prevalent throughout the water column, leaving nowhere for the fish to escape.

In late 2017, when the North Pacific Fishery Management Council met to set catch limits for the upcoming year, the stock assessment was grim for Pacific cod. The combination of climate-related impacts on the stock and lower projected numbers of adult and juvenile cod lead to a dramatic cut to catch limits with hopes that the fishery would recover. Science-based fishery management is the accepted cornerstone of sustainable fisheries in Alaska, and fishermen attending the meeting accepted the data and the decision. It was clear that ongoing scientific information was critical, and Alaska fishermen advocated to increase funding and offered the use of their vessels to conduct additional surveys to supplement the regular surveys administered by NOAA Fisheries. Unfortunately, due to ongoing funding challenges, additional funding was not secured to conduct further surveys.

In 2019, the GOA experienced a second heatwave (which may have been part or the initial ‘blob’ or a new marine heatwave), adding to the stress of the marine ecosystem, which had not yet recovered from the impacts of the previous warm years.

When the North Pacific Council met in December of 2019, the science once again pointed to a grim outlook. The stock assessment surveys for Pacific cod projected that the measure of cod abundance (spawning biomass) would be at an all-time low. So low, in fact, that the stock hovered just above the threshold under which it would be considered overfished. For the first time since the enactment of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act in 1976, the directed Pacific cod fishery was closed in the Gulf of Alaska. A federal fisheries disaster has been declared, and $24 million has been allocated for fishery disaster relief, to support both direct aid to fishermen as well as research.

Kodiak_Theresa Peterson
© Theresa Peterson
The Pacific cod experience provides a glaring example of the impact of climate change on species that provide both sustenance and economic viability for subsistence and commercial fishermen. Ecosystems that are usually able to maintain themselves are being pushed to the limit of tolerance—but what do we need to know and do to mitigate this risk?

In Kodiak, the fishermen continue to support scientific data and offer resources from the fleet to better understand what the future of fishing looks like amidst the impacts of climate change. A comprehensive understanding of these impacts on the marine environment can only be understood through science, the foundation for responsible fisheries management. Fishermen are ready to contribute to data needs through citizen science and methods to utilize the fishing fleet to fill gaps. We also need a management system that can quickly respond to this science, as the North Pacific Council did in making the difficult decision to shut down the fishery in 2020.

In reflecting on my island home, we are a resilient, adaptive fishing community with a will to survive. As with the current COVID-19 crisis, we have the will and the tools to survive, but we need support, and we need others to understand what is happening to a healthy marine ecosystem like the GOA because of our changing climate. Perhaps through sharing these personal stories, we can get a better understanding of what’s at stake.

Related Articles