One by one in the early spring of 2020, processors bracing for Alaska’s famed annual runs of wild salmon made clear to their fishermen that no novel coronavirus pandemic was going to come between them and that lucrative harvest.
“Some people have asked if we’ll actually be able to process salmon this season,” said Mark Palmer, president and chief executive officer of Ocean Beauty Seafoods.
“Our answer to this question is that we have been in business since 1910 and have never missed a salmon season in time of war, pandemic, or for any other reason,” Palmer said. “The salmon business is our core business and is in our DNA.”
Palmer assured his fleet that Ocean Beauty was already purchasing supplies and would be processing salmon this season “if it is humanly possible.”
To be sure, he said, Ocean Beauty was already running at high capacity it its Kodiak plant on bottom fish and to date had addressed all concerns posed by the pandemic.
Trident Seafoods made clear to its fleet that they were ready to deal with challenges posed by the pandemic, which has resulted in sickening thousands of people worldwide and killed many.
“Our number one priority is protecting the health and safety of our community, our fishermen and our employees,” wrote Rick Isaacson, regional manager for Trident Seafoods, in a letter to the Prince William Sound fishing community of Cordova, Alaska.
“We recognize that this season will not be business as usual,” Isaacson said. “Trident has accordingly adopted proactive steps to implement best practices that will protect Cordova residents’ health and safety, minimize health risks to our employees and fishermen, and maintain vital food production during this time.”
Ocean Beauty, Trident and other commercial seafood processors had been working for weeks by early April to figure out how to add extra safety precautions necessary to keep COVID-19 from spreading into their workforce and the coastal communities where so much of their processing takes place. Officials from these communities, mostly accessible only by air or sea, are ill-equipped to deal with medical issues related to the virus.
The state of Alaska had already mandated by mid-March that everyone coming into the state had to quarantine in place for 14 days as soon as they reached their final destination. Through April 1, state of Alaska health officials had tested over 5,000 people, with 143 of them testing positive for the virus. Three of those individuals had died and nine others were hospitalized.
Most of those who tested positive lived in the Anchorage area, Fairbanks and Ketchikan, but others were scattered through Juneau, the Matanuska Valley and the Kenai Peninsula.
Leaders of coastal communities made it clear they wanted no outbreaks there.
State officials, also very concerned about forecasts of large numbers of people becoming infected, continued to remind everyone to wash hands frequently, avoid touching their face, to maintain a defensible space of at least six feet between themselves and others and to wipe down often any surfaces touched frequently.
Processors were taking all these concerns very seriously.
Trident’s Isaacson assured fishermen who would be delivering to Cordova that Trident was finalizing Cordova-specific protocols to address plant operations, limits on employee interactions with the community and fishermen, and the logistics of helping fishermen carry out their season while adhering to local and state travel mandates. “We understand that communication and transparency are crucial as we address this crisis as an industry and a community” Isaacson said. “This situation is rapidly changing and as it evolves, we will maintain open lines of communication with the community. For us it will only be a successful season if we are able to maintain and protect the health and safety of our community.”
In his letter to harvesters delivering to Ocean Beauty, Palmer noted that his company had already created a virus working group with representatives from the Alaska operations, implemented a travel policy to reduce exposure and implemented a post travel self-quarantine plan.
Ocean Beauty also was distributing guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control to all its employees and customers and assured its customers that the processor would do its best to provide an uninterrupted flow of processed seafood to them.
In conclusion, he told harvesters, Ocean Beauty was looking forward to providing a great 2020 salmon market for them and their crews.