Alaska Cod Fishery To Close For 2020 Season Amid Warming Waters Gulf of Alaska cod have been in steep decline due to rising ocean temperatures. Now, for the first time ever, federal fisheries managers are shutting down the lucrative fishery because of low stock.

Alaska Cod Fishery Closes And Industry Braces For Ripple Effect

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF FERN'S "ARE U THERE")

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