Alaska Cod Fishery Closes And Industry Braces For Ripple Effect

Dec 8, 2019
Originally published on December 18, 2019 10:05 pm

In an unprecedented response to historically low numbers of Pacific cod, the federal cod fishery in the Gulf of Alaska is closing for the 2020 season.

The decision, announced Friday, came as little surprise, but it's the first time the fishery has closed due to concerns over low stock.

"We're on the knife's edge of this over-fished status," North Pacific Fishery Management Council member Nicole Kimball said during talks in Anchorage.

It's not over-fishing to blame for the die-off, but rather, climate change.

Warming ocean temperatures linked to climate change have wreaked havoc on a number of Alaska's fisheries in recent years, decimating stocks and jeopardizing the livelihoods of fishermen and locals alike who rely on the industry.

A stock assessment this fall put Gulf cod populations at a historic low, with "next to no" new eggs, according to Steven Barbeaux, a research biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who authored the report. At their current numbers, cod are below the federal threshold that protects them as a food source for endangered steller sea lions. Once below that line, the total allowable catch goes to zero. In other words, the fishery shuts down.

Up until the emergence of a marine heatwave known as "the blob" in 2014, the stock of cod in the Gulf of Alaska was doing well. But the heat wave caused ocean temperatures to rise 4-5 degrees. Young cod started dying off, scientists said.

"A lot of the impact on the population was due to that first heat wave that we haven't recovered from," Barbeaux said during an interview last month. Following the first heat wave, cod numbers crashed by more than half, from 113,830 metric tons in 2014 to 46,080 metric tons in 2017.

The decline was steady from there.

"Retrospectively, we probably should have shut the fishery down last year [too]," Barbeaux said.

Cod only enter the fishery at age three, so the environmental effects on the fishery are somewhat delayed. There are now signs of a second warming event. Scientists like Barbeaux say it's hard to predict what the future of the fishery will look like.

"We're just well beyond what we've ever seen before. It's this very unusual, warm event," said Mike Litzow, a NOAA fisheries ecologist based in Kodiak. "What the climate scientists are showing us, our best understanding is that this is going to be the new average within a short time frame."

Cod fisherman Frank Miles on board his longline vessel, called the Sumner Strait, in Kodiak's harbor.
Kavitha George / KMXT

With uncertainty looming, Gulf cod fishermen in Kodiak are struggling with a decline of what used to be a major part of the island's winter economy. Many fishermen have already moved on from cod. For the few remaining, the federal fishery closure further jeopardizes their livelihoods.

"It's kind of devastating," Kodiak-based pot cod fisherman Frank Miles said last month, hoping at the time that the situation would turn around for next year's season.

Before the first heat wave, Miles said about 70% of his income came from cod fishing. Since then, he's worked to diversify, but he's still concerned for the future.

"I'm more worried about my son and his generation, the younger guys coming up," he said. "I'm 60, I'm probably just about done. I'd like to think that I could fish cod one more time before I retire, but I don't know. I simply don't know where we're going here."

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Now to Alaska - in an unprecedented move, the federal cod fishery in the Gulf of Alaska is closing for the 2020 season. That's because the fish numbers are the lowest on record due to a warming ocean. From Alaska's energy desk, Kavitha George has the story.

KAVITHA GEORGE, BYLINE: Sixty-year-old Frank Miles has fished for cod around Kodiak since he was a teenager.

FRANK MILES: Started out at the age of 15 in an open skiff, back when salt cod was a staple. I think I've missed one cod season in 44 years.

GEORGE: Miles eventually graduated from an open skiff to a 58-foot boat called the Sumner Strait. Sitting in the galley on a rare sunny afternoon, Miles is taking a break from getting his boat ready to fish the next season.

MILES: You know, if you look back just 10 years ago, I mean, goodness - we used to fish eight months out of the year on just cod - me personally.

GEORGE: Some of that cod comes out of waters regulated by the state of Alaska. But the bulk of Gulf cod is caught in federally managed fishing grounds. The Federal Fishery used to be a major driver of winter economies in the Gulf, churning out well over $100 million each year in cod products, like filets for fish and chips. Everything changed with the emergence of a massive marine heatwave across the Pacific, commonly known as the blob. From 2014 to 2016, surface ocean temperatures rose 4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit, and cod numbers crashed.

In Kodiak, Miles is one of the last fishermen still trying to make it on cod. And he doesn't think the future looks promising.

MILES: I'm more worried about my son and his generation, the younger guys coming up. I simply don't know where we're going here.

GEORGE: When the blob subsided in 2017, there was some hope for a cod comeback. But this year brought signs of a new marine heatwave. And once again, cod seemed to be on the decline. Here's NOAA research biologist Steve Barbeaux.

STEVE BARBEAUX: I would say we're still a pretty big hangover from the first heat wave.

GEORGE: Barbeaux says cod could still bounce back with the right conditions this year. But that second heat wave doesn't bode well for recovery. This fall, Barbeaux reported Gulf cod at the lowest numbers on record with next to no new eggs.

BARBEAUX: What we're looking at in 2019 is it just got really warm. That means that the eggs didn't survive. If it gets above a certain temperature, cod eggs don't do well.

NICOLE KIMBALL: I'm fully in recognition that this is a significant burden on cod-dependent vessels, processors, communities that rely on this fish.

GEORGE: That's Nicole Kimball, a member of the North Pacific Marine Fisheries Council (ph). Earlier this month, the council unanimously approved the fishery closure. Even with the fishery on the knife's edge of overfished status, Kimball says they don't take the closure lightly.

KIMBALL: It's a significant loss. It's climate-driven. It's not due to overfishing. It's a trend I hope we can turn around if environmental conditions improve.

GEORGE: Back on his boat, the Sumner Strait, Frank Miles knows the days of making 70% of his income on cod are gone. He's worked to diversify, fishing tanner crab and halibut too. But he's still hoping for cod, if not in the federal fishery then possibly a state one.

MILES: You know, I'm playing a hunch that we're going to have some kind of a season. But if it is 100% closed down - going to have a lot of free time (laughter).

GEORGE: Even with the 2020 season looking so murky, Miles is being optimistic, getting his boat fixed up and his gear prepped and ready to catch some cod.

For NPR News, I'm Kavitha George in Kodiak.

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