As the calendar rolled over to 2018, Alaska’s cod fleet braced itself for brutal reductions in TACs throughout the Gulf of Alaska. After reviewing trawl surveys, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council cut the overall from 64,442 metric tons in 2017 to 13,096 metric tons for this year. Though TACs for the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands didn’t drop as precipitously, harvesters will fish for 188,136 metric tons, which is a 16 percent drop from the 223,704 metric tons last season.
The decline in cod stocks leaves the industry and biologists baffled. Emergent theories explaining the crash in the Gulf of Alaska center on the lack of forage species for the baby cod, which may be tied to the warm-water blob of 2015. Sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Alaska increased by 7 degrees Fahrenheit, according to recent studies. Young cod need more food to survive in warmer waters as their metabolism increases, giving legs to the idea that there might not be enough fodder to maintain the population.
Meanwhile, surveys in the Aleutians lend the hope that the cod may have moved farther north and out of the grid pattern of standardized trawl surveys.
“The survey decline in the eastern Bering Sea was matched by an increase in another northern Bering Sea estimate,” said Diana Stram, a fisheries analyst and plan coordinator with the council in Anchorage. Stram adds the caveat that fisheries biologists have yet to determine whether the traditional body of the fish moved north or if it’s an increase in a separate cod population.
Though the blob’s effects haven’t been as significant in the Bering Sea, where the Alaska Peninsula and the chain of Aleutian Islands form a fence and contain waters cooled by the winter’s pack ice, some of the warmer waters may have trickled through passes between the islands.
Causes to the cod drop aside, markets have responded with increased demand.
Bob Alverson, manager with the Fishing Vessel Owners Association in Seattle, notes that Alaska pot cod fishermen have seen offers of 40 to 42 cents per pound since the season opened on Jan. 1. That’s up about 7 cents from 2017, he adds. Meanwhile, H&G longliners have reported price increases of up to 15 percent over last year.