The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification for the Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod fishery has been suspended following data showing a troubling decline in biomass.

MRAG Americas, which was tasked with performing an expedited audit of the fishery after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) closed the area to directed fishing, released a report Friday determining the fishery no longer meets the MSC standard.

NOAA researchers made the decision to close the fishery after research found the available biomass would not likely be able to handle fishing pressure. Under federal regulations, if directed fishing on a given stock would push available biomass below 40 percent, the area is closed to harvesting.

NOAA researchers determined that harvesting on the GOA cod stock in 2020 would lead to just 20 percent of the overall biomass remaining in the water.

The GOA cod stock has been in decline since 2017; harvests were reduced by 80 percent in both 2018 and 2019 to encourage recovery.

Those declines have been linked with a period of atypically high temperatures in the Gulf of Alaska, the result of a vast swath of warm ocean water stretching from Alaska to California dubbed "the Blob."

MRAG Americas assessors noted the suspension of the certificate was linked specifically to the warm water interval.

"The Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod stock and fishery continue to be extremely well managed," the group said.

"The suspension is not due to overfishing or a lock of a responsible management response, rather, the depressed stocks of Pacific cod in the Gulf of Alaska...(are) climate driven and caused by the Gulf of Alaska marine heat wave."

The Blob

In 2014, the Blob caused significant impacts on fish movement, sparked harmful algae blooms and lead to marine mammal deaths. It was the second-largest marine heatwave in 40 years, according to NOAA Fisheries.

While researchers hoped the Blob was an anomaly, in late 2019, NOAA researchers determined a new Blob was forming of a similar size.

“It’s on a trajectory to be as strong as the prior event,” Andrew Leising, a research scientist at NOAA Fisheries’ Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California said.

“Already, on its own, it is one of the most significant events that we’ve seen.”

The Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, which holds the certificate for the Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod fishery, noted that the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands Pacific cod fishery continues to hold its MSC certificate. That area accounts for the lion's share of the overall Pacific cod production at around 94 percent of the total catch.

In addition, the fishery will continue to hold its Responsible Fisheries Management (RFM) certificate, the group said, noting that that certification is based on management responsibility of the fishery, and not triggered by particular stock levels.

What's next?

Though any fish harvested after April 5 will not be able to carry the MSC certificate, the Gulf of Alaska's MSC status is complicated.

Both the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands and Gulf of Alaska cod fisheries are in the midst of re-assessment to the MSC standard.

Since the review began last June, it was based on 2018 data, meaning that the Gulf of Alaska cod fishery could retain its MSC certification, MRAG Americas Director of Fisheries Certification Amanda Stern-Pirlot told IntraFish.

However, MRAG's new audit will supersede the re-certification, and any Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod harvested after the April 5 cut-off date will be ineligible to carry the label until a new assessment is made.

The Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod fishery was first certified to the MSC standard in April 2010.