Extremely low cod numbers lead feds to close the Gulf of Alaska fishery for the first time

A man in an orange raincoat watches Pacific cod slide out of a black cage onto the boat.
NOAA Fisheries scientists collect Pacific cod samples in the Aleutian Islands. (Public domain photo by NOAA Fisheries)

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.

It’s a decision that came as little surprise, but it’s the first time the fishery has closed due to concerns of low stock. Warming ocean temperatures linked to climate change are wreaking havoc on a number of Alaska’s fisheries, worrying biologists, locals and fishers with low returns that jeopardize fishing livelihoods.

A stock assessment this fall put Gulf cod populations at a historic low, with “next to no” new eggs, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research biologist Steve Barbeaux, 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.

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After the report was released, the stock assessment still had to pass through the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council for review. The council unanimously passed the final decision to close the fishery today in Anchorage.

Up until the emergence of a marine heatwave known as “the Blob” in 2014, Gulf cod was doing well. But the heatwave caused ocean temperatures to rise 4 to 5 degrees. Young cod started dying off, scientists said.

“A lot of the impact on the population was due to that first heatwave that we haven’t recovered from,” Barbeaux said during an interview last month. Following the first heatwave, 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.

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Cod only enter the fishery at age 3, so the environmental effects on the fishery are somewhat delayed. There are now signs of a second warming event. Scientists like Barbeaux and 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.”

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

Cod fisherman Frank Miles sits on the deck of the Sumner Strait, docked in Kodiak’s St. Paul Harbor. (Photo by Kavitha George/Alaska’s Energy Desk)
Cod fisherman Frank Miles sits on the deck of the Sumner Strait, docked in Kodiak’s St. Paul Harbor. (Photo by Kavitha George/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

State cod fishery limits for 2020 have yet to be set.

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

Before the first heatwave, 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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