Optimism rising as the pandemic ebbs, with an eye to another robust harvest
Harvesters headed for the famed Bristol Bay wild sockeye salmon fishery are upbeat this year, buoyed by the forecast of a robust harvest, a reopening economy, more people cooking salmon at home and the ebbing of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Conditions are very favorable,” said Andy Wink, executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association (BBRSDA), which represents some 1,800 drift gillnetters. “There is high demand … and there is a lot less fear and anxiety this year because we have been dealing with the pandemic for a much longer time.”
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is forecasting a run exceeding 51 million red salmon, with a harvest of 36.35 million fish, which would be 13% higher than the recent average of 32.23 million fish, and 40% better than the long-term average of 21.88 million fish.
If the Fish & Game biologists’ estimates prove correct, this year will continue a series of huge returns to Bristol Bay, with fisheries averaging over 48 million red salmon annually for the past decade.
State biologists have calculated that nearly half of the run will be age 1.2 red fish that have spent a year in fresh water and two years in saltwater, while the rest would be 1.3 sockeyes, that have spent a year in fresh water and three years in saltwater.
The updated forecast issued by ADF&G on April 2 called for an inshore run of some 17 million fish to the Naknek-Kvichak district, 11 million to Egegik district, 15 million to the Nushagak district and 6.5 million to the Ugashik.
“I think everyone is going into the season with the confidence that we can get the job done safely,” said Dave Harsilla, a veteran Bristol Bay harvester and president of the Bristol Bay Fishermen’s Association. “The processors are pretty much in charge of everyone’s safety. They still have some rules they want to impose, but it is a much better feeling than last year.”
“The fishermen have done a good job to increase the quality of their fish,” said Dan Lesh, who spearheads McKinley Research Group’s contract in Anchorage for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI). While the food service industry sales are not back yet, people are cooking a lot more fish at home, a silver lining that bodes well for long term seafood consumption per capita, Lesh said. “Of the food service industry itself, “there will be a lag, but I’m optimistic that a lot will come back,” he remarked.
Bristol Bay salmon has received a big demand boost from the efforts of Rising Tide Communications in Anchorage, which has been working with the BBRSDA for years to establish Bristol Bay salmon as a brand familiar to retail consumers, restaurants and wholesale channels. “Wild taste, amazing place,” is one of the mantras of their promotional program, online at bristolbaysockeye.org, along with a series of in-store demonstrations, colorful recipe cards and more. The website also introduces an eclectic bunch of Bristol Bay fishermen, telling where and why they have committed to the fishery, along with their favorite individual way to prepare Bristol Bay sockeye salmon.
An online survey conducted by McKinley Research this spring on behalf of ASMI found that more than half of the processors anticipate significantly higher pandemic-related costs in 2021, with COVID mitigation costs incurred by Alaska seafood processors this year expected to exceed $100 million.
Still, fears that seafood harvesters and processor workers would spread the novel coronavirus through villages with a long memory of the 1918-1919 global influenza pandemic that left so many people dead in Bristol Bay did not transpire. The efforts of processors, harvesters and communities, working with the state of Alaska, kept the spread of the virus at a minimum, and now in 2021, lessons learned from 2020 are driving health mandates for the 2021 season, with the added boost of massive efforts to vaccinate everyone engaged in this year’s fishery.
Processors are working with officials in the coastal communities where they process the fish to determine on an individual basis whether to confine processor workers to a closed campus. While harvesters are not requiring potential crew members to be vaccinated against COVID-19, several veteran captains interviewed said they are simply only taking on board people who have volunteered that they have been vaccinated.
“Our company is strongly encouraging us to get vaccinated and have proof of that,” said Harsilla. “That’s the smart thing to do.” Those who apply for crew jobs and won’t get vaccinated don’t have a job, he added.
“My crew are all vaccinated, thank goodness,” said Fritz Johnson, a veteran Bristol Bay harvester in Dillingham. “As long as we are all vaccinated on the same boat, we are fine,” said Robin Samuelsen, also of Dillingham, another veteran of Bristol Bay’s Nushagak district, whose crew consists of his four grandsons.
“They can run the boat themselves with me or without me,” he said. “I’m so proud of all four of them.”
Katherine Carscallen, a third generation Bristol Bay harvester and spokeswoman for Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay, is also upbeat about the fishery, in part because” the vaccination rates, especially locally, “are off the charts.”
Carscallen, another Dillingham resident, noted that last season, what with all the state mandates and local ordinances in place, the spread of the pandemic was kept under control. “This coming season with the vaccines and everything else, I hope we don’t have as many problems on the processing side,” she said, a reference to a few processors having to shut down their plants for days when a few workers tested positive despite all precautions they had taken.
Carscallen, who fishes for Leader Creek, said she has made it clear that she wants her crew vaccinated. “I’m not requiring it, but hiring is dependent on that,” she said. “The jobs are available to the vaccinated.” And Leader Creek itself, she said, is making vaccinations available to everyone.
Under Alaska’s health advisories, commercial fishing is considered an essential business and falls under Alaska’s essential services and critical infrastructure for purposes of COVID-19 precautions.
To be sure all their members have the latest information on such rules and regulations, the BBRSDA has issued online its own 2021 Bristol Bay COVID-19 Fishermen’s Handbook. The manual emphasizes the need to come to the Bay prepared, to consider getting vaccinated and to consider laminating their vacation card or taking a photo of it on their cell phone.
“Catch salmon, not COVID,” said Johnson, who is helping make signs to spread the word through Dillingham about the importance of getting vaccinated. Yes, said Johnson, he’s optimistic, “but Mother Nature can always throw you a curve ball.”
Harvesters are also reminded to contact boatyard managers, essential vendors and processors about their pandemic protocols and to bring masks to wear as required by private businesses, city facilities and elsewhere as needed.
Supplies for the Bristol Bay boats this year will also include the yellow and black checkered Lima Flag, indicating if a vessel is under quarantine and the solid yellow Quebec flag, indicating the vessel is not under quarantine.
Optimism remains, along with the hope there will not be a repeat performance of last year’s compressed run, which put a few companies on limits for how often that could accept fish.
“Hopefully it will be more spread out this year,” Wink said.
“Many of the processors last year had reduced processing crews,” said Harsilla. “That will be much better this year, and sockeye products have been doing well. I think the prospects for this year look much brighter than last year, when COVID was overwhelming. The market is good, inventory is sold out, but the price (to be paid to harvesters) is still unknown.”
Processors working in Dillingham plan to confine their workers to the grounds the cannery is on, Samuelsen said. “It’s up to the processors if they have an open campus or not. Most will have a closed campus.”
One issue still unresolved is when masks are required.
Currently, a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) federal mask mandate requires crew of all commercial fishing vessels to wear a face mask at all times unless eating or drinking. The exception is when wearing a mark would create a “risk to workplace health, safety or job duty.”
“Wearing masks is going to be an inconvenience, but that is the law as it stands,” Samuelsen said. “As long as we are all vaccinated on the same boat, we are fine, but when we come in contact with processors or other boats, we will be very careful,” Samuelsen said.
“If the company requires it,” Carscallen added, “we will wear masks.”