The southeastern Bering Sea is an enormously productive ecosystem. It produces over 40% of the nation’s total annual fish catch. The pollock fishery operates here -- one of the nation’s most important commercial fisheries in both annual yield and value. It is also home to an exuberant diversity of wildlife, from seabirds to seals to whales. However, as the climate changes, the species here, and the people who rely on them, will have to adapt.
To understand these changes, government and academic scientists are working together to assess their possible biological and ecological consequences. This work will provide insights that fishery managers can use to help ensure the sustainability and resiliency of this rich and dynamic ecosystem.
An Unprecedented Effort with National and Global Implications
NOAA Fisheries Alaska Fisheries Science Center, NOAA Research’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory and the University of Washington, through the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean, are taking a multi-disciplinary approach, combining physical oceanography and fisheries science, to provide abundance estimates for key fish stocks and potential management options for the future.
Scientists will produce various projections of what the Bering Sea ecosystem will look like under different climate and fishing scenarios. For instance, rising sea temperatures will likely cause some species to thrive and others to decline. Reliable predictions of these changes will allow fishermen and coastal communities to plan ahead and will help resource managers ensure that fisheries and the seafood supply remain stable over the long term.
Although this study focuses on the Bering Sea, it will generate new methods of interdisciplinary research that NOAA Fisheries hopes to replicate in other parts of the nation. Under the NOAA Fisheries Climate Strategy, staff are developing regional action plans to anticipate and respond to climate change. Information generated through this study will contribute to development of an Alaska regional action plan.
“We’re really excited about this project because it’s part of a broader effort to produce a global picture of fish productivity and best fishery management practices in a changing marine environment,” said Anne Hollowed, co-project lead and supervisory research fishery biologist at NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Fisheries Science Center.
NOAA Fisheries also plans to share the results of this project with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This international body is preparing a 2021 report on the impacts of climate change on marine ecosystems and coastal communities.
Building Blocks in Place Making Effort Possible
Several models already exist for the region that look at climate, ocean and air circulation patterns, the ecosystem, fish stock health and the socio-economics of fishing communities and businesses.
“We plan to expand the scope of existing models by incorporating varied data and, in some cases, combining models to generate future climate scenarios,” said Andre Punt, project lead for the University of Washington.
Over this three-year project, scientists will use biological data for several commercially and ecologically important fish species, for which linkages exist between fish productivity and climate variability. Key species include walleye pollock, Pacific cod, arrowtooth flounder, northern rock sole and snow crab.
Scientists will try to account for what fish species eat and what eats them. In other words, they will add a range of data to the models that considers the entire food chain, from plankton through top predators like whales and humans. They will also incorporate oceanographic data such as water temperature, salinity, currents, and biogeochemistry into the models.
“It’s both exciting and daunting to see how environmental data are used in a multi-disciplinary framework. It raises new challenges for ocean and climate modeling, and opens new doors,” said Wei Cheng, a physical oceanographer from the University of Washington and NOAA affiliate with the Pacific Marine Environmental Lab participating in the project.
"We know that widespread change is coming to Alaskan marine ecosystems with the potential to affect everything from sea ice to fisheries,” said Kirstin Holsman, co-project lead and research scientist, NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Fisheries Science Center. “Through this coordinated, multi-pronged research effort, we can better understand what that change will look like, what uncertainty there is, and how we can adjust our management to continue the region’s legacy of sustainable fisheries under climate change.”