NOAA Research Warns of Climate Threats to Young Pacific Cod Food Sources

 NOAA Fisheries researchers say temperature shifts in the southeast
Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska are increasing the risk of prey mismatch and
starvation for Pacific cod larvae.

The study, led by NOAA Fisheries scientist Ben Laurel of the
Alaska Fisheries Science Center, notes that the first feeding of the young
Pacific cod is a life-or death situation. Cod larvae are nourished by a yolk
sac after they hatch, but once the nourishment in that sac is depleted, they
must find food within days to avoid starvation, so there must be prey available
at that time for first feeding.

“Warming (waters) can increase the metabolic demands of fish and
shift the timing of their food production,” Laurel said. “So, you have temperature
unraveling the system, moving food around.”

When mismatched prey timing and increased metabolic demand line
up, he said, “it can be pretty disastrous. The better we can understand and
predict these effects, the more effectively we can manage them now and in the

Laurel has been studying the early life stages of cold-water
commercial fish species for over 20 years, with a particular focus on how cod
respond to rapidly changing environmental conditions.

While researchers have always seen relationships between
temperature and marine populations, they don’t always know how temperature
drives change. Stakeholders want to know why there are no fish in a given year,
so it is important to understand why things are happening.

The research team found that in the Bering Sea timing of prey
production has historically been more variable, but mismatch effects continue
to be buffered by cooler temperatures.

“Spring plankton production in the Bering Sea is tied to the
timing and extent of sea ice cover, which fluctuates widely from year to year,”
Laurel explained. “But cooler temperatures in the Bering Sea buffer food
demands of fish larvae so that they are not as sensitive to timing.”

In the Gulf of Alaska, the timing of prey production historically
has been less variable, but warmer temperatures mean larvae are more sensitive
to variability. There, the larvae use yolk sac reserves faster and have less
time to find food when the yolk sac reserves run out.

Climate warming means both metabolic demands and shifts in timing
of prey production,” he said. “In the Gulf of Alaska, young cod are facing
double jeopardy.”