Two fishery resource disasters declared for Alaska, ‘The Blob’ could be a factor in both

Pacific Ocean Blob (NASA Physical Oceanography Distributed Active Archive Center)
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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has declared two fishery resource disasters in Alaska.

The disasters occurred in 2018, impacting Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod and sockeye salmon in Chignik.

According to the Associated Press, Congress has appropriated $165 million for such help for fiscal year 2019, though it is spread across seven states. The Commerce Department decides allocations to eligible fisheries.

Dollar value of Pacific cod from the Gulf of Alaska. From: NOAA

The cuts to the quota were expected to result in a $7-$8 million loss in revenue, Walker wrote at the time.

Steve Barbeaux, a resource biologist with the Alaska Fisheries Science Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says that roughly 55% of the 2017 quota was actually caught by fishermen, meaning the 2018 drop was 63% of the 2017 catch.

In 2019, the Gulf of Alaska cod quota dropped again from 18,000 tons to 17,000 tons, another 5.5% drop.

Researchers say a marine heatwave that impacted the northwest Pacific Ocean from 2014-16, known colloquially as “the blob,” was likely responsible for the poor returns of Pacific cod. A resurgence of warm ocean temperatures has recently been identified in the same area but scientists say it is currently not as severe as before.

“We are waiting with bated breath,” said Dr. Nick Bond, a research meteorologist with the University of Washington, about whether the trend will worsen. Bond coined the term “the blob,” and says storms in the Gulf of Alaska could dissipate the warm water.

If conditions don’t return to normal, the quota could be cut again. Biologists with NOAA who advise the management of the federal Pacific cod fishery say that the management of the fishery is “conservative already.”

“Whether we recommend to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council of making further cuts based on ecosystem indicators will need to wait until November when we have more information on this heatwave and our survey results from this summer are finalized,” Barbeaux wrote in an email.

For Chignik, the 2018 commercial sockeye salmon harvest totally failed, devastating the community. Walker wrote to Ross that November, requesting federal help.

“In 2017, the community harvested 4.7 million pounds of salmon with estimated gross earnings of $2.2 million,” Walker wrote. In 2018, virtually no sockeye salmon were commercially harvested in the Chignik fishery.

The fishery employed 38% of Chignik residents that year, a small coastal community of 91 people, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

Salmon in Alaska waters are controlled at a state level and management occurs dynamically. Commercial Fisheries Director Sam Rabung with the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, says returns are analyzed in real-time and are not projected ahead of time.

Fish are counted as they come back to rivers: if escapement goals are met, commercial harvests can begin, said Rabung. The process is known as inseason escapement-based management.

Although not definitively linked to “the blob,” researchers suspect that warmer ocean trends impacted zooplankton numbers in 2014-16 and how some salmon species that spend time feeding in the Gulf of Alaska were able to grow to maturity.

Some have suspected that curtailed the size of sockeye returning and how many survived their time in the ocean.

Bill Templin, the chief fisheries scientist with ADF&G, says there is speculation about “the blob’s” impact on Alaska salmon but no definitive connection. He says the earlier warming trend was also not uniform across Alaska.

To make matters more complicated for researchers, the department does not have the resources to study trends to salmon in real-time on the ocean.

For pink salmon, it is easier, Templin said. Researchers can study juvenile fish as they leave rivers and compare their size as they return.

In 2017, a federal disaster was declared for Gulf of Alaska pink salmon from the previous year. $56,361,332 was made available for fishermen, research and as a means to strengthen the fishery.

For fishermen, Dr. Brian Brettschneider, a climatologist at the International Arctic Research Center, says it is very difficult to tell if the storms needed to dissipate the warmer water in the Gulf of Alaska will come this winter.

Concerning as well for Alaskan fishermen is the lack of sea ice in the Bering Sea. Although not connected to “the blob,” warmer water in the area could be correlated to similar consequences.

Earlier in the month, NOAA declared an Unusual Mortality Event in the Bering and Chuckchi seas when 282 bearded, ringed, and spotted seals were found dead in the area. That represented a mortality rate five times higher than usual.

Brettschneider says warm water this summer in the Bering Sea means that it’s all but impossible for a typical sea ice year this winter. “With anthropogenic climate change we’ve really tipped the scales, these things are much more likely to occur now,” he said.

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