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Small cod fishery will occur after all in Gulf of Alaska’s state waters

Workers at Kodiak's Island Seafoods hand-fillet Pacific cod on Jan. 19, 2002. (AP Photo/ Marion Owen / File)

“If cod forsake us, what then would we hold?

What carry to Bergen to barter for gold?"

— Petter Dass, “The Trumpet of Nordland,” 1735

They say good things come in small packages — and that’s the case for Alaska cod fishermen heading into the new year.

A small cod fishery will occur in Gulf of Alaska state waters (out to 3 miles) for 2020, putting to rest speculation that no cod would be coming out of the Gulf next year.

A catch quota of about 5.6 million pounds, down from 10.2 million pounds, will be split among five regions: Prince William Sound, Cook Inlet, Kodiak, Chignik and the South Alaska Peninsula, with limitations on gear and staggered openers.

That will be a relief to thousands of Alaskans whose jobs are tied to the fishing industry. Unlike other coastal communities that run on summer salmon, Pacific cod typically kicks off fishing on New Year’s Day in many fishing towns and keeps workers busy at seafood processing, transports, fuel docks, grocery stores, repair shops and other businesses throughout the year.

In an unprecedented move this month, fishery managers shut down cod fisheries for 2020 in Gulf federal waters (from 3 to 200 miles out) due to a collapse of the stock from “(un)natural causes.”

The fish were clobbered by a three-year heat wave starting in 2014 that raised water temperatures by as much as 5 degrees. The shift hurt several cod year classes and their offspring by throwing their metabolism and diets off kilter. Cod numbers decreased from nearly 250.5 million pounds in 2014 to under 30 million pounds in 2018, and surveys this year showed more declines.

“Think of no salmon returns to Bristol Bay. Or a shutdown of pollock for the A season in the Bering Sea. This is the kind of seismic impact the changes in climate have wrought with cod,” John Sackton, founder of SeafoodNews.com, wrote in his Winding Glass column “Lack of Cod killing Alaskan Communities, as State and Council Punt on any Relief.” When making their decisions, fishery managers must consider other cod-dependent users. By law, strict apportionments must accommodate the diet of sea lions, a protected species.

“The closure they’ve announced this year is not because of overfishing or a stock collapse. It’s really because of federal mitigation measures for Steller sea lions,” said Doug Vincent-Lang, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The state cod fisheries are determined by surveys and stock models done by federal overseers who then break out the catch among all Alaska fishing regions and gear types.

While some fishermen questioned the opener, suggesting it would be best to “let the Gulf cod rest a bit,” Vincent-Lang defended the decision and called it a “balancing act.”

“This decision is a carefully thought out and conservative approach to recognize the balance between conservation and Alaska’s right to manage our own resources. We are confident that we’ve struck that balance in this decision and will be monitoring to avoid over harvest yet provide our fishermen the opportunity to fish,” he said in an email.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy added in a statement that he trusts Fish and Game to monitor and manage the fishery in a way that avoids overharvest and also provides an opportunity to fish and provide tax revenues for fishing towns.

Around 225 boats of all sizes fish for cod in the Gulf of Alaska, including trawlers, longliners, pot boats and jiggers, each an independent business supporting several families.

The Gulf cod outlook is grim with surveys showing very few tiny cod in the water. Worse, an even hotter blob appears to be on the horizon, said Steve Barbeaux, a scientist with NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center.

The future is getting harder to predict, said Nat Nichols, area groundfish manager at Fish and Game in Kodiak, because decades of robust data used to assess the stocks no longer apply.

“All of a sudden all the data you collected in the ’80s and ’90s about how ocean conditions affect certain stocks start to become a lot less useful for making predictions because it’s so different than anything we’ve seen,” Nichols said. “If you’re trying to compare ocean conditions this year and make a forecast for next year, that works pretty well if you’ve seen these conditions before. But if you haven’t, it starts to fall apart pretty quick.”

Meanwhile, Trident Seafoods announced last month that it will close its Sand Point processing plant for the winter. It is the first such closure at Sand Point since 1898, when it was founded by a San Francisco fishing company as a cod fishing station and trading post.

Pacific cod is Alaska’s second-largest groundfish catch by volume topping 510 million pounds in 2018 (a 22% decrease from 2017), according to an economic status report by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council plan team. The combined dockside value of Bering Sea and Gulf cod catches in 2018 totaled $225 million, reflecting a 59% drop in the Gulf to just $29 million.

There will be a 2020 cod fishery in the Bering Sea of 305.5 million pounds, down by nearly 1 million pounds.

Fishing futures

The Alaska Young Fishermen’s Summit since 2007 has helped build a sustained network of fishing operations across the state and the next gathering is set for Jan. 21-23 in Juneau. The summit, sponsored by Alaska Sea Grant, will have drawn over 500 attendees after the Juneau event, said Sunny Rice, a Sea Grant marine adviser at Petersburg who has helped organize eight summits over 12 years.

“I’m starting to feel like we are influencing a generation a little bit,” she said, adding that it’s a fast-paced three days of learning and networking.

“We start by giving new entrants into commercial fisheries the opportunity to meet each other so they can connect, and then they meet people who have been established in the industry for a long time and glean information from them,” she said.

The summit focuses on three themes, with an emphasis on the business of running a fishing operation. How Alaska seafood fits into the global picture is another topic, Rice said. That will include the views of the PCC Community Markets group, the nation’s largest consumer owned food cooperative based in Seattle since 1953.

“Their focus is on sustainability and they love Alaska seafood,” Rice said.

The summit also digs into the fishery regulatory process. For example, “how do you participate in the Board of Fisheries, what do you need to know when a decision is being made at the Council level that impacts your business,” she said. “How you can get on your local harbor board, be a part of your RSDA or your CDQ or your local fish and game advisory committee.”

A changing climate’s impacts on fisheries also is on the agenda, and Rice said she’s surprised at how many fishermen now call it their top concern for the future.

The Juneau event also lets summit attendees meet with Alaska legislators at the start of the session.

Discounts apply for sign-ups through Jan. 7. The Alaska Marine Safety Education Association also is offering a free Fishing Vessel Drill Conductor class in conjunction with the summit.

Alaska Young Fishermen’s Almanac

Personal accounts that chronicle the fishing life make up the Alaska Young Fishermen’s Almanac, and Volume 2 is available now. The 124-page book contains 50 submissions from across Alaska.

“The almanac serves as a cultural touchstone for a community that not a lot of people outside of that community can find a window into. For people who fish, it’s a really great community builder. And people who don’t can get a window into this livelihood and why it’s important and worth preserving,” said Jamie O’Connor of Homer, a fisherman who heads the working waterfront and young fishermen’s programs for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.

The first almanac last year was so popular it covered the costs for the second volume, and it may go to a second printing.

“Last time there were lots of really cool photos and this time we still got great photos, but a lot more original art and written pieces, which is really exciting,” O’Connor said.

The almanac is modeled after a publication for farmers that dates back to 1792.

Find the Alaska Young Fishermen’s Almanac at local stores, community events and online at www.akmarine.org.

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