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Gulf 'blob' refugees may fish cod in Bering Sea

December 22nd, 2017 | Jim Paulin Print this article   Email this article  

The warm water "blob" is the likely culprit in the crash of Gulf of Alaska cod stocks, potentially leading to an influx of small boats into state water fisheries in the Dutch Harbor and Aleutian Islands areas.

The small-boat Pacific cod quotas for 2018 are down in the Bering Sea, but the decline is not nearly as drastic as in the Gulf of Alaska, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

It's the difference between a 16 percent drop in state waters in the Bering Sea, and an 80 percent decline in the Gulf.

Last season, 24 vessels 58 feet long or less fished for Pacific cod with pots in the Dutch Harbor subdistrict, where there's no limit on the number of boats. Expect more when the season opens early next year, according to Miranda Westphal, of ADF&G in Unalaska/Dutch Harbor.

"We're expecting to see more boats fishing in the Aleutian Islands and Dutch Harbor subdistrict fisheries," Westphal said.

The Dutch Harbor quota is 28.4 million pounds, and the Aleutian Islands' is 12.8 million, for a total of about 41 million pounds in state waters within three miles of shore in 2018, according to the Dec. 14 announcement.

That's more than the entire 2018 Gulf-wide quota for small boats, of 9.8 million pounds, an enormous drop from 48.4 million pounds in 2017.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Nathaniel Nichols in Kodiak said the cod crash is probably the worst in the history of relatively recent state waters fisheries, which date back to the 1990s. It may cause Kodiak boats to travel farther west for cod, he said. "It's going to change the playing field."

The alarming Gulf cod numbers prompted an outreach message to fishermen from the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council.

"The Pacific cod stock in the Gulf of Alaska has drastically declined. Scientific information suggests that this decline is the result of an unusually warm mass of water (the 'blob') that persisted from 2014 through 2016. The warm water increased the metabolism of cod, while reducing available food, resulting in poor body condition and increased mortality," according to the NPFMC.

"The warm water also impacted cod egg production and larval survival, greatly reducing recruitment during these years. The lower number of adult and juvenile cod will affect the population and fishery for several years to come. Management of Gulf of Alaska cod is now focused on maintaining the spawning stock and increasing the likelihood that the fishery will remain viable in the future. Accordingly, catch limits for Pacific cod were set at very low amounts for 2018 and 2019," according to the NPFMC.

The NPFMC sets the federal offshore quota, using the same information that determine state waters quotas.

Cod is a valuable source of local revenues, according to Unalaska Mayor Frank Kelty.

From 2013 to mid-2017, Kelty said Pacific cod landings brought in $4.8 million in taxes to Unalaska/Dutch Harbor. That includes $1.9 million in local sales taxes, and $2.9 million in state business taxes shared with the city. The price-per-pound averaged between 24 cents in 2015, to a high of 33 cents in 2014, according to Kelty's figures. The most recent price in 2017 was 31 cents per pound.

Jim Paulin can be reached at jpaulin@reportalaska.com.

 

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