Becoming Resilient

Gulf of Alask
Gulf of Alaska waters. File photo via NOAA.

Gulf of Alaska seafood harvesters have lots of ideas about how to make themselves and their fisheries more resilient as climate continues to change, and NOAA Fisheries research scientist Marysia Szymkowiak is working with them to prioritize and mobilize plans for the rapidly emerging future.

Harvesters’ ideas cut across science and communication, fisheries management, national and local policies and broader sociocultural issues, says Szymkowiak, who has spent a decade conducting research on the human dimensions of Alaska fisheries.

“The folks I have talked to across the Gulf have put ideas forward like reducing carbon emissions from diesel engines through hybrid models, building networks between scientists and fishermen for exchanging knowledge, expediting policymaking within fisheries management bodies, development climate scenario planning tools for fishermen and communities—and those are just a few,” she said.

“But not everything can be done at once and fishermen need to have conversations about prioritization and mobilization of these ideas,” she added.

Some harvesters who are aware of the study have taken a wait and see approach on what it will do, but have expressed concern that the research may contribute more to academia than their concerns.

“I could understand why some fishermen may see some of this modeling as an academic exercise, but I have worked very hard to involve fishermen in the work that I am doing and have them be empowered through that process,” Szymkowiak said.

Szymkowiak’s current work, as part of NOAA’s Gulf of Alaska Climate Integrated Modeling Project, focuses on understanding how Gulf fishing communities may adapt to climate change.

The Gulf ’s diverse marine fisheries annually produce $1.3-$2.1 billion in first wholesale value, and many other important recreational and subsistence uses. Challenges identified by NOAA that harvesters face include finding resilience with warming ocean waters, ocean acidification issues, rising sea levels, changes in ocean circulation and stratification and potential changes in species distributions, ecosystem productivity and food-web structure.

“My component of the project and my work on this will likely go on for years to come because I personally see this as a crisis in our Gulf fisheries,” she said. “The Gulf of Alaska Climate Integrated Modeling Socioeconomics-from Climate to Communities is a three-year project and will end sometime in 2023, with expected models of projected impacts on Gulf fisheries related to greenhouse gas emissions scenarios.”

Marysia Szymkowiak
NOAA Fisheries research scientist Marysia Szymkowiak focuses on understanding how the Gulf of Alaska fishing communities adapt to climate change. Courtesy photo.

The study hopes to answer three basic questions: how will fishing fleets respond to climate change; how will those responses affect fishing communities; and what tools do stakeholders have and need to adapt to these challenges? Economists and social scientists at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, University of Washington and Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission are to develop interrelated models to address these questions.

Szymkowiak is the project lead for the adaptation model, providing insights on human adaptation to climate change to shape responses to be incorporated under the fleet dynamics and fisheries management model and the community economic model.

Her immediate goal, she said, is to amplify fishermen’s voices by sharing their thoughts in presentations within NOAA and other venues, including the Alaska Marine Science Symposium in Anchorage and the ComFish trade show in Kodiak.

For the past two years both of these meetings have gone virtual only out of health concerns because of the COVID-19 global pandemic.

The Anchorage symposium, which attracts researchers from all over the world, was set for virtual only again for 2022, while organizers of ComFish were hoping for an in-person event, but also contemplating virtual.

In her most recent virtual workshops, Szymkowiak said she has asked fishermen to think about ecosystem changes and what they need for broader, long-term resilience.

“Then I ask them to talk to me about what they want within that context. That is a format that really allows me to meet people where they are thinking about all of these things,” she said. “When I set it up that way fishermen really just ran away with it. That’s because they’re out there on the water months at a time watching these changes, thinking about them, the marine ecosystem, their futures, their communities. They don’t need me to really prompt them. They want to have that conversation.”

Part of the process is to build networks of people in order to spread the conversation among more fishermen.

A lot of recent conversations, she said, are about changes to salmon runs, the decreasing size of fish, changes in stock composition, how warming waters might impact salmon fry, and algae blooms, with the bottom line being how changing ecosystems will impact their ability to make a living, she said.

Since 2017 there’s been a steady decline of fish in the Gulf, and a number of salmon fishery disasters, Szymkowiak said. They are trying to make up for this by marketing their fish differently via direct marketing efforts like Sitka Salmon Shares and Catch 49, but that strategy applicable to everyone, she said.

There are also conversations about entities in Alaska that pay a higher
price to people who take better care of their fish.

“They can’t rely on the quantity, but they can get a better price for the quality,” she said.

Szymkowiak also explained that fishermen who have been interviewed have also expressed the need for more information on what scientific research is saying in terms of Gulf fisheries.

They say they recognize the climate science is out there, she remarked, but that researchers need a way to communicate it better.