Cod traditionally kicks off Alaska’s fisheries at the start of each year. Following the unprecedented cod closure in federal waters of the Gulf of Alaska, the status of a state waters cod fishery out to three miles will be decided in the next two weeks.
Doug Vincent Lang is Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game Commissioner, –
“We’re looking at everything from a fully prosecuted state water fishery to having no fishery to having somewhat of a reduced fishery in the waters.”
The state fishery is based on a portion of the much larger federal cod catch. That resulted in a 10.2 million pound state harvest for 2019, including at Prince William Sound, Kodiak, Chignik and the South Alaska Peninsula.
About 225 fishing vessels using various gears fished for cod this year in both Gulf regions. Each boat supports multiple families.
Gulf of Alaska cod stocks were clobbered by a three year heat wave starting in 2014 that hit several year classes and their offspring by throwing their diets off kilter. But no matter what, by law managers must apportion enough cod to 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.”
Still, the Gulf cod stock is in a precarious state and forecasters warn of another warm water blob on the horizon.
“We are very cognizant of not wanting to push this fishery into an overfished status. And we’re talking with the scientists and the modelers to make sure if we conduct a fishery that the probability of pushing it into an overfished status is not high. We would like to make sure that we are having fisheries into the future.”
That’s getting harder to predict, says Nat Nichols, area groundfish manager at ADF&G in Kodiak. The decades of robust data used to assess and predict the stocks can be tossed out the window.
“As ocean conditions change, all of a sudden all the data you collected in the 80s and 90s about how ocean conditions affect certain stocks starts to become a lot less useful for making predictions because it’s so different than anything we’ve seen in the past. So, you know, 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.
Commissioner Vincent-Lang says the state water opener is a tough call and he’s aware of the hurt to fishing families and communities towns.
“As we’re making our decision we’re not only concerned about pushing the P-cod fishery into an overfished status. We’re also very cognizant of the impact of not having a state water fishery on fishermen in the GOA and those coastal communities and the impact that would have on lost fish tax revenues. It’s a balancing act and we’ll consider both of those factors as we make our decision.”