Climate change top topic for panelists at this year’s ComFish


Kodiak’s annual commercial fishing trade show ComFish kicks off in-person and virtually on Thurs., March 23. The event typically brings together a mix of vendors, fishermen, lawmakers and scientists to discuss and celebrate the state of Alaska’s fisheries. And one topic is top of mind at this year’s conference: climate change. 

“For years now we’ve been thinking about climate change as something that’s coming in the future, something that’s maybe coming somewhere else,” said Mike Litzow. He’s the Director of the Kodiak Lab for NOAA fisheries and is presenting at this year’s ComFish. He’s also on KMXT’s Board of Directors. 

“We’re seeing temperatures in the Gulf and in the Bering that we couldn’t get to in the pre-industrial world and then we’re seeing consequences of those temperatures,” said Litzow. 

Researchers are increasingly able to link extreme weather events to human-caused climate change using what’s called attribution science – which looks at whether climate change caused certain weather events to be more severe, and if so, by how much. He said events like the marine heat wave known as The Blob, which warmed the Gulf of Alaska back in 2014, is an example.

 “We saw the Pacific cod collapse in the Gulf, we’ve seen snow crab collapse in the Bering Sea, we’ve seen sockeye fisheries in the Gulf doing poorly,” said Litzow. “All of those serve as different strengths of evidence that can be linked to these extreme temperatures that we know are human caused.”

This year’s ComFish panelists will lead over a dozen forums covering issues like harmful algal blooms and ocean acidification to the state of the Bering Sea crab population. 

Fourteen Alaskan fisheries were given federal disaster designations in January by the U.S. Department of  Commerce, and that’s likely to come up at this year’s event too. Alaska Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang says one of the reasons was a warming ocean.

“For many years we assumed the ocean was this unchanging variable. I think we’ve come to the understanding that the ocean isn’t as static as we once thought it was,” he said.

Vincent-Lang will be one of the first presenters at this year’s ComFish. He said the department has done a lot over the years to understand freshwater habitats, but ocean research is ongoing. Vessels from the U.S., Canada and Russia are surveying the North Pacific in the largest-ever study of salmon at sea, but Vincent-Lang says there are no easy answers.

“We’re starting to piece all these puzzle pieces together in the ocean, but unfortunately the answers take time to fully develop and emerge from that research,” he said.

So, what does this all mean for fishermen? Marysia Szymkowiak is a research social scientist at NOAA and another ComFish presenter. Fishermen are on the front lines of climate change and are well aware that it’s happening, according to Szymkowiak, but there needs to be better communication between scientists and fishing communities about just what happens next. 

“There is this sort of trench between scientists and the people who need that science to make decisions about their livelihood and their way of life,” said Szymkowiack.

Szymkowiak said there’s a forward looking part of that conversation, and despite the challenges presented by climate change there’s also opportunity – like investments in rebuilding working waterfronts and supporting newer industries, like mariculture. 

“Fishermen are thinking about these things, those aren’t ideas that I am bringing forth to the communities, that’s not my role in this they are the ones that are ready,” she said. “They have those ideas and we need to have more of these conversations.”

That conversation – and others – will have to wait until Thursday when ComFish kicks off in the Kodiak Convention Center.  All of this year’s ComFish panels will be available to stream online, a full schedule is available at ComFish’s website


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