STRAIT SCIENCE — Franz Mueter gave a Strait Science lecture to talk about the potential fisheries moving northward as the climate changes. The graph here shows how the density of fish in the Bering Sea general declines as one goes further north. But under warm conditions, such as the region saw in 2018-2019, fish density is relatively uniform across the Bering Sea.

Commercial fisheries may soon be at the Bering Strait’s doorstep

Sea ice loss, warming waters and the northward expansion of fish species like pollock are all contributing to a pattern in the Bering Strait region known as “borealization.”
That means the Arctic ecosystem is becoming more like the boreal region to the south.
Those changes have raised the possibility of new commercial fisheries opening in the northern Bering Sea and even further north in the Chukchi Sea.
Franz Mueter, a scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences in Juneau, gave a Strait Science lecture last week to discuss research that might influence management decisions under these changing conditions.
There has been a longstanding moratorium on commercial fishing in U.S. federal waters north of the Bering Strait. State waters in the Arctic, however, host some small commercial fishing harvests.
But large commercial fisheries are already sitting right at the “doorsteps” to the Arctic—in particular, around the Arctic’s main inflow shelves of the Barents Sea and the Bering Sea, Mueter said. And these fisheries are “poised to move north if fish move north—when fish move north,” he said.
Indeed, as Arctic waters warm, some commercially important stocks are already on the move.
In general, the northern Bering Sea used to have a much lower density of fish than the southern Bering Sea, where most of the large commercial fisheries have occurred, Mueter said. But the density of fish became uniform across the north and south under warmer conditions in 2018-2019.
Mueter showed maps of Pacific cod distribution over several recent years. In a more typical year, such as 2010, the fish tended to be distributed in the Bering Sea at latitudes between the Aleutians at Nunivak Island. Cod typically stay away from the “cold pool” that develops at the bottom of the Bering Sea. But when the infamously warm conditions of 2017-2019 caused the cold pool to disappear, cod moved north, all the way up to the Bering Strait.
Pollock, too, are moving north. Russia has already established a fishery for that stock in the Chukchi Sea across the border. Russia conducted a study of walleye pollock in the western Chukchi Sea in 2019 and set a commercial fishing quota of 37,200 tons based on the results. In 2021, the catch was far below that, at a bit over 4,000 tons, Mueter said.   
“I believe that in 2022 and 2023 they caught a similar amount or more, although I don’t have the numbers and they are hard to get right now, as you can imagine,” he said.
Mueter noted that scientists are still unclear about the fate of pollock in the Chukchi Sea. Is the marine region just a “dead end” for juveniles, or a summer feeding ground for adults?
“Whether or not they can occupy that area year-round really depends on what temperatures they encounter,” he said. “Potentially, some of these species could establish new spawning areas, but that would certainly require the right conditions and warmer temperatures throughout the year.”
Warming also increases the likelihood of surprising ecosystem responses that are difficult for scientists to predict.
“There have been a number of ecological surprises in the last number of years due to warming, and we can expect more of those,” Mueter said. He cited examples such as seabird die-offs, harmful algal blooms and the recent collapse of snow crab in the Bering Sea after record high numbers. Oil spills and other environmental damages become more likely, too, as vessel traffic increases in the Bering Strait.
All of these factors contribute to a set of tricky questions that fisheries managers are still grappling with, Mueter said.
The northward shift of species like pollock and cod has ecosystem impacts in the northern Bering Sea with consequences for seabirds and mammals that are really important in the region.
“It has a potential to lead to conflicts between commercial fisheries following this northward expansion of these species and the Bering Strait communities that make a living in that area—that’s their backyard and their breadbasket,” Mueter said. “Then also there’s all kinds of transboundary issues.”
For example, Pacific cod used to be constrained to the eastern Bering Sea—in U.S. waters—but now they are a transboundary stock.
“Some coordination with Russia certainly would be very well advised, and there’s not much happening at the moment,” he said.
Because of the commercial fishing moratorium in the Chukchi Sea and Arctic Ocean, there’s not as much of a concern in those regions for fisheries managers just yet, Mueter said, and there’s still limited monitoring of fish in those regions.
However, during the question-and-answer portion of the talk, Charlie Lean, who was a longtime ADF&G employee, said he was “frustrated” when that moratorium on fisheries was put in place and expressed worry about what might happen when that moratorium is lifted in 2037.
“If you want to have a harvest, a local fishery, you have to let the locals come at it slowly, and if you just throw the doors open once there’s a population established, the risk is that big outside boats will come in and take over,” Lean said. “So it’s a real issue, and I think how to manage fisheries is perplexing.”
For the northern Bering Sea, the management questions may be more pressing—and conflict is already ripe.
Earlier this month, Alaska Beacon reported that the tribal governments of Savoonga, Shishmaref and St. Paul were trying to block a federal study that is feared to be a precursor to opening the northern Bering Sea for commercial bottom trawling.
Bottom trawling with nets that get dragged along the seabed has been prohibited in the area. But as part of a proposed study, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center was planning to deploy some commercial trawling gear north and south of St. Lawrence Island as early as this summer. The goal of the project was to understand the potential effects of trawling on the marine habitat. Kawerak passed a resolution in September to oppose the study and express a desire for the northern Bering Sea to be permanently off limits to commercial bottom trawling in the area.
Mueter said that when the prohibition on trawling in the region was adopted in 2008, the same amendment also established the Northern Bering Sea Research Area for studying the impacts of trawling on bottom habitat.
“The thought here was, of course, that as fisheries might expand northward, there might be interest in bottom trawling in those areas depending on what fish spread north,” Mueter said. “And we should at least understand what the consequences of such a fishery would be if it were to occur.”
But based on testimony and feedback from northern Bering Sea communities, work on that research plan was suspended. The question of this research hadn’t been revisited again until recently.
Speaking from the audience, Bob Metcalf of Nome noted the recent consternation about the proposed trawl study. He asked if federal managers have an understanding that many Alaska Native people in the region who rely on marine mammals like walrus don’t think commercial fishing should be the primary driver of research in the northern Bering Sea and farther north.
Mueter, who serves on the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council’s Science and Statistical Committee, noted that the council has not always had the best understanding of the importance of the whole ecosystem to the people who live there, and he acknowledged that there hasn’t been much coordination between agencies that manage different species. He also noted that, under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the council has to operate according to standards that don’t just take local populations into consideration. For example, the “optimum yield” standard states that managers must prevent overfishing while achieving, on a continuing basis, the optimum yield from every U.S. fishery. That “optimum” is defined as the “amount of fish that will provide the greatest overall benefit to the Nation, particularly with respect to food production and recreational opportunities and taking into account the protection of marine ecosystems.”
Craig Chythlook asked about how Indigenous knowledge was used (or not used) in the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council’s process.
“I think there’s been a lot of attention to ensuring that there’s consultation, and that people can come and provide their public testimony,” Chythlook said. But what about the use of Indigenous knowledge in the agenda-making? Chythlook expressed a hope that the council’s Science and Statistical Committee would add a member who was qualified to interpret Indigenous knowledge and to take “the holistic, Indigenous approach” when thinking about what to fund, what to research, what to prioritize.
Mueter said the council was far from a style of management that looks at the whole ecosystem.
“We are still trying to implement ecosystem-based fisheries management, and really, what we need to be thinking about is ecosystem-based management that looks at not just fisheries, but all other relevant sectors or other relevant uses of the ocean, for that matter,” Mueter said.

 

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