By Margaret Bauman
For millions of wild sockeye salmon returning to Bristol Bay in 2020 it will be the traditional journey, but for thousands of people coming to harvest and process the world’s largest run of red salmon it will be a fishing season like none other.
Veteran harvesters like Robert Heyano of Dillingham, said he plans to fish the Nushagak area of Bristol Bay, just as he has since he was a boy on board his dad’s drift gillnetter. “I’m not looking forward to it this year, not with this virus,” he said. “I’d like to see the fishery conducted in a safe manner.”
Heyano said he had not heard fishermen say outright that they would not fish this year because of COVID-19. “It all depends how safe they feel,” he said. “If we could focus our energy on the safest practices that would go a long way,” he said.
Others, like Dillingham’s Verner Wilson, were undecided about the 2020 season.
“I don’t want anyone to get sick,” he said. “But I don’t make the ultimate decision. My dad is the captain.” But Wilson also said every time that Bristol Bay people have a challenge ahead of them they face it. “I hope this is a challenge we can come together on again and protect our livelihood,” he said.
Months ahead of the anticipated return of the celebrated salmon, word spread of a virus initially infecting thousands of people in China and spreading worldwide.
The global pandemic which may have begun in a “wet market” in Wuhan, China, where animals such as bats, snakes, rabbits and birds are sold illegally, began spreading quickly.
By January 20, the first confirmed cases of the virus were recorded in the United States and South Korea.
The seafood processing industry knew they had a problem on their hands and began planning for upcoming fisheries. By the end of April COVID-19 had infected some three million worldwide, killing more than 207,000 people, including upwards of 55,000 individuals in the United States alone.
In Alaska itself, mandates dictating 14-day quarantines, social distancing, closure of non-essential businesses and travel limits were credited with helping to stem the spread of the virus, so that the state had the lowest number of confirmed cases of infection of all 50 states.
By late April there were some 351 confirmed cases of the virus in all of Alaska, none of them in the Bristol Bay region, with well over 200 people recovered and a total of nine deaths.
Determined to keep the virus out of Bristol Bay, which was devastated by the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu pandemic, the processors, fishermen, state health officials and leaders of coastal fishing communities began trying to come up with plans that would allow for the fishery critical to the Bristol Bay economy to proceed in a manner that would ensure the safety of everyone involved in harvesting and processing and residents of the communities as well.
The Bristol Bay Working Group in Dillingham, representing health, economic, housing and tribal of the Bristol Bay fishery, set down specific minimal requirements for conducting the fishery to ensure protection of their residents, including weekly health screenings for all.
Veterans of the fishery from Alaska’s coastal communities said they would self-quarantine themselves and their crews before leaving their home ports and that they would not leave their boats for the entire fishery. They said, in fact, that any fisherman not willing to do the same should just stay home this year.
Alaska General Seafoods, Copper River Seafoods, Peter Pan Seafoods, Northline Seafoods, Trident Seafoods, Ocean Beauty Seafoods, North Pacific Seafoods and Silver Bay Seafoods have posted their plans for safe operation during the pandemic online at the home page of the Bristol Bay Borough at Naknek. All agreed that in addition to the detailed precautions they planned to abide by state and local mandates in all locations they operate in.
The mandates that processors have imposed on themselves are expected to cost the industry millions of dollars, during a period when many of their usual restaurant and food service customers, including school systems and universities, have been closed down because of the virus.
The best way to keep the virus from spreading is to avoid exposure to COVID-19 in the first place, they agreed. Rules set down by the state of Alaska for all its residents were quickly adopted by processors, from frequent hand washing to social distancing to frequent wiping down of frequently touched objects and surfaces using cleaning sprays and wipes.
One of those state mandates requires that everyone arriving in Alaska, whether a returning resident or someone arriving for work or travel, must self-quarantine for 14 days, leaving the quarantine location only for medical care, with no visitors allowed during that quarantine. In Dillingham, in some cases, entire families decided to quarantine for 14 days when an individual member of that family returned home from elsewhere in the state.
But processor rules for all employees go much further, as they are aware that consequences of not identifying infected individuals will have profound safety and business ramifications. Processors are also acutely aware of community concerns about the possibility of Kanakanak Hospital at Dillingham and the Camai Community Health Center at Naknek being overwhelmed by demands for their services.
Several, including Trident Seafoods and North Pacific Seafoods has hired a licensed nurse practitioner to work onsite to provide care right on its own plant facility property.
Processors have engaged the services of several health services to provide pre-departure screenings for all employees, who must complete a health questionnaire before getting on aircraft bringing them to coastal communities. Those identifying themselves as having traveled from a COVID-19 endemic area in their medical screening questionnaire would be placed in the “pending physician consultation.”
Silver Bay Seafoods plans to move employees by charter aircraft whenever possible to minimize risk of infection while en route from their home to SBS facilities in Alaska, the company said. Their employees will also be instructed to wear cloth masks for the entirety of their travel except when going through security screenings.
All employees are being advised to frequently wash hands with soap and water, use hand sanitizer and not touch their faces.
Meal hours in mess halls are being staggered to allow for social distancing.
Entrance to processor housing and worksite facilities is being limited to those assigned to be there and these facilities are subject to frequent wipe downs of rails, door handles and surfaces frequently touched with disinfecting wipes. Essential vendors and contractors are required to check in daily with security, bringing their own masks, face shields and gloves.
The Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association said it is keenly aware of concerns of Bristol Bay communities and working with the communities and industry representatives to develop safe options for the fishery. “The BBRSDA does not and cannot control individual fishermen or direct their operations, but we strongly advise all members of the fleet to strictly adhere to local, state and federal guidelines in regards to quarantine requirements and all other health and safety measures,” said Andy Wink, executive director.
While processors presented detailed plans for a fishery during a pandemic, there were none in place for independent commercial fishermen, until the state of Alaska in late April spelled them out as its Health Mandate 17.
If arriving by commercial or chartered aircraft fishermen must wear face coverings throughout their journey except when going through security screenings, until they reach their self-quarantine facilities.
All vessels arriving independently in Bristol Bay are required to fly a “Lima” flag or similar yellow and black pennant if they have any crew on board still under self-quarantine.
Several fishermen arriving in Bristol Bay on their own fishing vessels from Kodiak said they planned to quarantine before departing and several mentioned they planned to stay on their fishing vessels for the entire fishery. Anyone not planning to stay only on their own fishing vessel while fishing in Bristol Bay this year should just stay home, they said.
A complete list of state mandates for COVID-19 is posted online at covid19.alaska.gov, with additions and amendments updated daily.