Alaska fisheries escape effects of climate change for now

Commercial fishing in Alaska is a multi-billion dollar industry.
Commercial fishing in Alaska is a multi-billion dollar industry. (Aftab Uzzaman/Flickr)

With coastlines eroding, temperatures rising, and sea ice retreating, Alaska is feeling the effects of a warming planet. But a new federal report suggests fisheries in the state haven’t experienced many observable impacts of climate change so far.

Commercial fishing in Alaska is a multi-billion dollar industry. For 18 consecutive years, fishermen have hauled more fish into Dutch Harbor than anywhere else in the country. But at this point, researcher Terry Johnson says climate change isn’t a hot topic in the industry, even though it could affect young fishermen.

“We aren’t talking about next year, but we are talking about within this century or within the working lives of young people who are just coming into the fishery now,” he said.

Johnson says interest in the topic is growing among fishermen.

As a researcher for Sea Grant — an offshoot of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — he’s synthesized hundreds of scientific papers, interviewed scientists and stakeholders, and combed through popular media to compile this report.

Johnson says climate change will have different effects on different fisheries — salmon might do better in warmer waters, while pollock and crab might fare worse.

Johnson says short-term ocean warming events, like El Niño or the Blob, could preview the long-term effects of climate change on fisheries.

“If 50 years from now, the long-term ambient temperatures are the same as they were last year during a short-term event, you can see how stocks reshuffle themselves,” he said. “Some prosper and some diminish.”

Johnson says so far, observable impacts of long-term climate change on Alaska’s fisheries have been relatively mild. Commercially important fish species are prospering while sport and subsistence resources are within normal ranges. Exceptions like the sweeping decline of Chinook salmon could be tied to climate change or ocean acidification, but the research isn’t there yet.

And Johnson says seeing Alaska’s future is as easy as looking south.

“You want to know what Alaska is going to be like 100 years from now?” Johnson said. “Look at Washington, because the temperatures are warmer there. If nothing changes, eventually we are going to get a similar type of long-term temperature increase here.”

Johnson says fisherman deal with change all the time.

The fishing industry is constantly adapting — from market collapses to advances in technology to shifts in resource management. Johnson says that flexibility has primed them, so they can adjust to climate change.

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