Gulf of Alaska Harvesters Seek Path to Resilience as Climate Changes

Marysia Szymkowiak
Marysia Szymkowiak. Courtesy photo.

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.

These 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 remarked.

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 focuses on understanding how Gulf fishing communities could adapt to climate change as part of NOAA’s Gulf of Alaska Climate Integrated Modeling Project.

The Gulf’s diverse marine fisheries annually produce $1.3-$2.1 billion in first wholesale value and 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,” Szymkowiak remarked. “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.”

That 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, the University of Washington and Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission plan 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.