Stakeholders were shocked in late October when they learned that cod stocks in the Gulf of Alaska appear to be at the lowest levels ever seen. Surveys indicate a drop of almost 80 percent from last year. Further digging into the data didn’t improve the outlook.
The three methods used by fishery scientists showed the lowest population estimate ever in the trawl survey, a longline survey showed a 53 percent decline in the stock from 2016 and cod bycatch in other fisheries was the lowest on record.
So what happened?
Scientists blame warmer water moving into the Gulf starting in 2014.
“We had what the oceanographers and the news media have been calling the blob, which is this warm water that was sitting in the Gulf for those three years, and it was different than other years in that it went really deep, but it also lasted throughout the winter. And so what can happen is you can deplete the food source pretty rapidly when the entire ecosystem is ramped up in those warm temperatures.”
Steven Barbeaux is with the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. The annual surveys showed large year classes of cod starting in 2012 through 2015, indicating good fishing for six years or more. But the warmer water and the depleted food supply caused that recruitment to crash.
Catch limits are usually set at about 75 percent of a biological threshold which was set at just over 88-thousand tons for this year. For 2018, the threshold is just 18-thousand tons and it could go lower.
“I think it’s just really important that the public understand that’s a preliminary number, but they should also understand that there is a fairly big change coming in the cod resource. So, fishermen, stakeholders, a lot of people will be affected, a lot of industry.”
Buck Laukitis is a member of the North Pacific Council which will set the catch limits in early December.
Industry experts predict the best case scenario is for the Gulf cod stock to start turning around in 2021.
Thanks to the assist from KBBI in Homer.