Warming Ocean Waters Indicate Winners and Losers for 2020
January 1, 2020
Groundfish, shellfish and finfish alike are swimming into an uncharted future in Alaska in 2020, in the face of warming ocean waters that are challenging the survival of some species while boosting the abundance of others.
Fisheries biologists on a state and federal level are engaged in research, trying to determine how warming oceans, ocean acidification and increasing drought conditions in some areas will impact the ability of different species to reach their full potential at different life stages.
There are also many unanswered questions about how these conditions will impact the availability of food sources and predator-prey relationships for all fisheries. At present, fisheries scientists are expecting 2020 to bring more of the same challenging conditions that caused mounting concerns in 2019, including drought conditions that prevented thousands of wild Alaska salmon from reaching their natal streams to spawn.
Yet the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is forecasting a robust run of nearly 49 million sockeye salmon into Bristol Bay in 2020, with a harvest of nearly 35 million fish in Bristol Bay and another 2.35 million sockeyes in the South Peninsula. ADF&G notes that the forecast is based on the sum of individual predictions of nine river systems feeding into the Bay and four age classes of reds. If the harvest come through as anticipated, it would be 6 percent larger than the most recent 10-year average of Bristol Bay total runs and 29 percent larger than the long term (1963-2019) average of 34.6 million fish. State biologists said all nine river systems were expected to meet their spawning escapement goals.
The Southeast Alaska pink salmon harvest forecast, by comparison, is predicted to be in the weak range. The 2020 harvest forecast of 12 million humpies for Southeast Alaska is about one-third of the recent 10-year average harvest of 35 million pink salmon. Biologists said a harvest near this forecast would also be about 60 percent of the average even year harvest since 2006.
The Southeast humpy forecast is based primarily on juvenile pink salmon abundance indices collected during the Southeast Alaska Coastal Monitoring project, and the low juvenile abundance index in 2019 was not unexpected, biologists said.
Pink salmon escapements in the parent year, 2019, were very poor throughout northern Southeast Alaska inside waters and the escapement goal was not met in that subregion, which may have resulted in below optimal egg deposition, biologists said.
Likewise escapement and harvest of pink salmon in the Northern Southeast Inside subregion has been very poor since 2012 and the 2020 forecast indicates this pattern is likely to continue. While pink salmon escapement goals for the Southern Southeast and Northern Southeast Outside regions were met in 2018, harvests were well below average.
Biologists said the low juvenile abundance index in 2019 might also indicate that brood year 2018 pink salmon experienced poor freshwater and/or early marine survival. It's also possible that drought conditions that have been present in Southeast Alaska from the parent year 2018 spawn through the spring of 2019 reduced spawning success or had a negative impact on the overwinter survival of developing juvenile salmon, but exact reasons for this low juvenile abundance are not known, they said.
Rapid climate change continues to pose many questions about the future of all fisheries.
The issue got the full attention of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council during its December meeting in Anchorage, where the total allowable catch of the multi-million dollar groundfish in the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands and the Gulf of Alaska are calculated every year.
"We are definitely in a strange period," said Diane Stram, senior scientist with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, whose focus is the vast groundfish fisheries of the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands and the Gulf of Alaska.
"Some stocks like sablefish are doing well. Under some warming situations, Pacific cod could (also) do very well, but if the right zooplankton isn't available to them under those warming water situations, they don't do as well. Right now it looks pretty bleak, but it is contingent on the strength of those year classes," Stram said.
"We are in unchartered territory," said Rachel Baker, deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, who represents the state on the council in the absence of ADF&G Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang. "We need to be more precautionary on our TACs."
Warming water temperatures raise the metabolism of small Pacific cod, so their appetites increase, but with their prey less available, also due to changing oceans, the result is a lower survival rate to the adult stage, said Sara Cleaver, a fishery analyst with the council.
Pacific cod stocks in the Gulf of Alaska have declined so dramatically that the council's decision to shut down that fishery in the Gulf in 2020 came as no surprise, nor did its decision to cut the Pacific cod TAC for the BSAI from 14,214 metric tons in 2019 to 13,796 MT for 2020.
A decision on whether there will be a state Pacific cod fishery in 2020 is still pending.
When the biomass of Pacific cod falls below 20 percent of the long-term biomass of the Gulf of Alaska, the federal fishery must be closed to comply with Steller sea lion protection measures, noted Karla Bush, federal fisheries coordinator for ADF&G.
In the Eastern bering sea, where harvesters of pollock overshot the TAC of 1,397,000 MT with a harvest of 1,406,063 MT through Nov. 2, the 2020 TAC was set at 1,425,000 MT. pollock harvesters in the Aleutian Islands had caught just 1,592 MT of their 19,000 TAC by Nov. 2l.
Their 2020 TAC again was set at 19,000 MT.
Sablefish, which are doing well in the warming ocean, were a whole other story.
Harvesters, including Linda Behnken, president of the Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association in Sitka, urged the council to use caution in setting the TAC for sablefish, saying catch rates were low and there was little evidence of young sablefish appearing in the Gulf of Alaska.
"We are starting to see an uptake of little fish, but we are a long way from 2011," Behnken said. "There is little about the past that will predict the future of our oceans because of climate change," she said "There is a lot of uncertainty and likely less productivity in our oceans. We want to see these young sablefish grow up... to be more valuable to the industry and the biomass," she said. "There is a really big price difference between small and larger sablefish."
Behnken also said longliners were seeing greater uncertainty in maturation, and that the trawl industry should make an effort to let their fleets know where sablefish are. Later in the meeting during a discussion on sablefish discards, the council approved several alternatives aimed at improving options for small sablefish to grow larger by allowing the careful release of small sablefish back into the ocean in the Individual fishing quota fisheries. Final action on that matter is not yet scheduled.
Despite concerns of commercial harvesters, who urged the council to exercise caution on its sablefish TACs, the council boosted the TAC in the Gulf to 14,393 MT in 2020, up from the 11,571 MT 2019 TAC, in a fishery where harvesters had delivered 12,219 MT through Nov. 2.
In the bering sea the sablefish TAC was adjusted from 1,489 MT upwards to 1,861 metric tons in 2020, while for the Aleutian Islands the TAC went from 2,008 MT to 2,039 MT.
The council also boosted TAC in the BSAI in 2020 for yellowfin sole, arrowtooth flounder, Kamchatka flounder, flathead sole, several species of rockfish, Atka mackerel, sculpin and sharks, to reach the total allowable groundfish catch to 2,000,000 MT.
Gulf of Alaska TACs were raised for shallow water flatfish, flathead sole, Pacific Ocean perch, big skate and octopus.
Elsewhere during the week-long session that ended on Dec. 9, the council voted to remove the prohibition on resuming fishing for crab boats in the BSAI until all crab are landed, to allow vessels to make partial deliveries and then continue fishing before fully offloading all of their harvested crab. The action removes federal regulations prohibiting the continuation of a fishing trip subsequent to a partial offload of crab under the federal crab rationalization program. Resulting biological, economic and management impacts of this action are to be included in the next seven-year review of the BSAI crab rationalization program.
In its initial review of the Central Gulf of Alaska rockfish program reauthorization, the council favored alternatives including removal of a sunset provision on the program, which is set to sunset on Dec. 31, 2021.
In support of reauthorization, the council said that the program has improved safety at sea, controlled fleet capacity, enhanced the ability of National Marine Fisheries Service to manage species allocated under the program, increased vessel accountability. The program has also allowed for full retention of allocated species and reduced halibut and Chinook salmon bycatch and provided economic stability to coastal communities in the Central Gulf who are economically dependent on the rockfish fishery, council staff said in a presentation.
The program has also been good for Kodiak, adding additional stability for processors there, said Julie Bonney, executive director of the Alaska Groundfish Data Bank, adding that rockfish are thriving, as a species benefitting from warming ocean waters.
The rockfish program was established for 10 years, from 2012 through 2021, replacing the rockfish pilot program that went in place for five years in 2007. Final action is slated for the council's meeting Jan. 27-Feb. 2 in Seattle.
Concerns over stemming undocumented sport harvest and commercial bycatch of halibut in the face of currently declining halibut stocks also prompted much discussion and testimony during the council meeting.
The council heard testimony, but took no action on a proposal registration of unguided halibut rental vessels, which are a matter of concern because there is no data compiled on how much fish anglers in the guided halibut fishery are catching. Several people who testified before the council spoke of seeing out-of-state anglers at airports in Alaska shipping many boxes of the sport fish harvest home.
Instead the council asked staff to coordinate with the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, Alaska Department of Fish and Game and recreational stakeholders to explore alternative non-regulatory methods to quantify the number and geographic scope of non-guided rental boat activities.
In its review of a halibut abundance-based management workplan, which is scheduled for an initial review at the council's June meeting in Juneau, the council asked staff to facilitate the analysis. The council's concern is that the current BSAI halibut abundance-based management approach involves development of complex control rules that adjust halibut prohibited species catch limits. The council's objective is to establish abundance-based prohibited species catch limits that minimize halibut PSC to the extent practicable and aid the directed halibut fisheries at low levels of abundance.
During its initial review of the St. Matthew Blue King crab Rebuilding Plan the council approved a motion with an alternative to set target dates for rebuilding, with an option for a directed fishery to open based on the state harvest strategy while the stock is rebuilding.
Final action on that rebuilding plan is set for the council's meeting in Anchorage from March 30-April 7.
Climate change and ocean acidification has presented challenges for some shellfish, and researchers are still trying to determine if red king crab and other shellfish will have time to adapt to rising acidity in ocean waters.
ADF&G announces in October each year which shellfish fisheries in the bering sea and Aleutian Islands will be open or closed, and for those that are open, the allowable catch.
This year the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery wound up with a catch of just under 3.8 million pounds, with harvesters averaging 15.6 crabs per pot, the lowest since 2005. The crab were weighing in at 7.14 pounds on average, the highest since 1973, but biologists were concerned because they were mostly older crab, indicating a lack of recruitment of new crab into that fishery.
ADF&G announced on Dec. 6 that the 2019-2020 commercial Tanner and golden king crab fisheries in Southeast Alaska would open by regulation on Feb. 17, 2020. The season start date is based on the date with the smallest Juneau tidal range between Feb 10 and Feb. 17.
The registration deadline for both fisheries in Jan. 21.
ADF&G announced on Dec. 9 that the Eastern Aleutian District Tanner crab 2020 fishery would be closed because the estimated abundance of mature male Tanner crab failed to meet stock size thresholds for a guideline harvest level of at least 35,000 pounds. The decision came in the wake of analysis of trawl survey results that estimated mature male Tanner crab abundance for Unalaska/Kaleta Bay, Makushin/Skan Bay and Akutan sections.
The good news for the commercial crab fleet in the new year is snow crab, who are currently thriving. The allowable catch for snow crab in 2020 is 34,019,000 pounds, up 23 percent from 27,581,000 pounds last year, said Miranda Westphal, area management biologist at Dutch Harbor for ADF&G. "There is a big pulse of legal males coming through and we are expecting that pulse of legal males to continue to mature, she said. Last year 61 vessels participated in the snow crab fishery and Westphal said they are expecting about the same number in 2020.