NOAA scientists show off their catches of tiny cod in July at Kodiak.                                            Credit: Alaska Fisheries Science Center                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

 

Tiny cod fish are appearing around Kodiak. It could be a blip or an indication that cod stocks are recovering after the stock crashed from several years of too warm water.

“A lot can happen in that first year of life that we would like to learn more about to predict whether or not these year classes that come through are actually going to survive. But there is always this variability and uncertainty that we have to be braced for.”

Ben Laurel is a fisheries research biologist with the Alaska Fisheries Science Center based in Newport, Oregon. He and his team are spending time in Kodiak catching first year cod that are born offshore and drift into coastal grassy areas each summer. Their data go back to 2005.

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“Gradually we got this little time series going and documenting changes in those young of the year from 2005 all the  way through this incredibly warm water event we had in 2014, 2015 and 2016.”

Gulf of Alaska water temperatures reached nearly 61 degrees, up from a norm that’s closer to 50 degrees. Right after they saw no first year cod fish. But Laurel says things might be taking a turn for the better – although he cautions they are referencing just one small area.

“So in 2017 the ocean temps started to get back to normal and we did see signs of some fish, which is good because we hadn’t seen fish earlier than that. But again, we’re just looking at one year – in 2018 also seeing some young fish around. But, what does that mean.”

This summer’s early results seem promising and juvenile cod were much more abundant compared to the warm blob years. Laurel is taking the tiny cod back to the Oregon wet lab where they will run tests on survival conditions. Computer models will develop trajectories on the likelihood of the cod growing to maturity.

“Are these fish the same condition, and do they have the likelihood of making it to adulthood just like those fish before the warm water blob – and we just don’t know. We have a lot of questions just to understand what the fate of these fish that are starting to show up at least locally, what that means for the fishery.”

 

The cod study is expanding to more nearshore areas of Kodiak, along the Alaska Peninsula and eastern Gulf. Videos out deeper will show how the cod cohort from 2017 is faring.

“We’re trying to see how that first sign of fish back in the water, how those guys are doing and where they are.”

Laurel says the research will provide a window into what might be expected with a changing climate.

“It’s sort of a dress rehearsal for things to come. And it’s encouraging we had really responsive reactions to this really drastic reduction in the population. I’m encouraged by that but also tentatively nervous about what’s in line for the future. 28  everybody should be braced for that uncertainty.”

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