With thousands of seafood workers coming to Alaska, state tries to contain Covid-19

Two months ago, local leaders in southwest Alaska’s Bristol Bay, a 250-mile-long inlet in the Bering Sea, begged the state’s governor to consider canceling the commercial sockeye salmon season. They feared that Covid-19 would spread through the region’s small villages, which have scant health resources. Now, preparations for this fishery, which starts in a matter of weeks, are barreling ahead as fishermen and seafood processing-plant workers descend on the region, and the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases shoots up across the state. As of June 9, Alaska had more than 600 cumulative cases.

In March, Governor Mike Dunleavy was quick to respond to the Covid-19 crisis, shutting schools and restricting intrastate travel in hopes of reducing transmission and keeping the virus out of rural communities where hospital beds are few or non-existent, and some people live without basic sanitation services like running water. But he declared the commercial fishing industry, which operates in numerous remote areas, “critical infrastructure” and began rolling out a slew of protocols aimed at protecting both public health and this $5.2 billion industry.

The mandates require newly arrived fishermen to quarantine for 14 days, to monitor themselves for illness, and to limit their contact with local communities. The state produced an additional 10 pages of “enhanced protective measures” for seafood processors. Companies are urged to follow CDC guidelines for meat and poultry processing plants and required to submit public health plans to the state. Processors can quarantine workers before travel to fishing communities, or at the plants themselves, and workers must test negative for the virus before being released from quarantine.

Each summer, sockeye salmon—a healthy run of 49 million is forecast for this summer—throng into Bristol Bay’s tributaries on their way to spawning grounds, attracting some 10,000 commercial fishermen and processors from across the state, the United States, and the globe. Commercial fishing will open here in late June and run for about a month. But with the salmon season underway in other parts of the state, these protocols are already being put to the test.

In early May, a week before the opening of Alaska’s first-of-the-year commercial salmon fishery—the famed Copper River run—an out-of-state processing plant worker tested positive for the virus in Cordova, a community of about 2,200 people that had been virus-free. The Bristol Bay region had zero cases until mid-May, when processors began prepping for the season, and another worker from outside the state tested positive. Thirty-six more Covid-19 cases have been identified among seafood workers throughout the state, including 11 in a single plant in Whittier, which handles some of the state’s early run of salmon. Among the state’s 49 non-resident positive cases, the majority work in the seafood industry.

According to officials, the state is tracing contacts of all confirmed cases, and there are no documented instances of out-of-state workers transmitting the virus locally. That doesn’t allay community fears. “About 90 percent of my village are at risk,” said Lorianne Rawson, tribal administrator for the Native Village of South Naknek, where the commercial salmon industry has had a foothold since the 1890s. She worries about village elders and those with underlying health conditions, she explained.

A set-net crew harvesting sockeye salmon from the Bristol Bay in 2019.

In the Lower 48, Covid-19 has sickened more than 28,000 workers in meat and food processing facilities, according to data tracked by the Food & Environment Reporting Network. These outbreaks have highlighted how easily the virus can spread in settings where people labor in close quarters.

Just last week, 92 of 126 people aboard the enormous Seattle-based vessel American Dynasty, which fishes for and processes pollack, cod, and hake, tested positive for the virus. And this past weekend, Pacific Seafood confirmed 124 Covid-19 cases spread among five processing plants in Newport, Oregon. “There’s a lot of extra attention on food production right now, and rightfully so,” said Julianne Curry, public affairs manager for Icicle Seafoods, one of several major processors operating in Bristol Bay. By the time fishing starts in Bristol Bay, her company, which just merged its salmon operation with Ocean Beauty Seafoods, will have some 850 workers in the region.

“We are updating our plans every day and every week,” Curry said. In addition to the required 14-day quarantine and testing, the company has closed its facility campuses to keep workers in and community members out, put space and Plexiglas dividers between workers on production lines, required personal protective equipment, and staggered mealtimes.

Bristol Bay processors are mobilizing now to get 5,000 workers in place before fishermen start picking salmon out of nets. According to Chris Barrows, president of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association, a rise in confirmed cases among these workers is a sign that industry efforts to protect its workforce and fishing communities are succeeding. “What we’re seeing is screening and mitigation practices working,” he said.

Still, Norm Van Vactor, CEO of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, wants to see processing companies do more. He hopes incidences of Covid-19 cases among seafood workers serve as “warning shots over the bows of companies that aren’t doing everything they can do.” With 30 years’ experience managing seafood processing facilities, mostly in the Bristol Bay region, Van Vactor knows well how illness can take hold in these plants.

“Once you get going, everybody’s working together, living together,” he said, with workers laboring shoulder to shoulder over long shifts in cold, damp conditions, sleeping in bunkhouses, and eating in company galleys. A virus-driven shutdown would affect not only that plant, Van Vactor warned, but also the scores of fishermen who rely on the facility to buy their fish, wiping out a whole sector of the market.

Van Vactor would like to see processors meet the state’s requirement with “real quarantining” of individual workers, he said. Currently, some plants quarantine workers in groups that are cordoned off from others for two weeks while traveling or in their living quarters. But they can still work at a six-foot remove–or with PPE or other barriers in place–from people outside their cohort. Van Vactor would also prefer better oversight of quarantine requirements. “There’s been no enforcement component to this at all,” he said. “The anxiety level is high.”

“I’m just hoping we don’t go on limits,” said fisherman Joe Trotter. He dreads the possibility that Covid-19 outbreaks will force processors to operate with smaller crews or shutter slime lines – as the production lines are known – completely. That would slash the number of fish that seafood companies buy and force fishermen to reduce their catch.

Trotter lives in Bellingham, Washington, and keeps his boat, the F/V Sea Hag, in Naknek, a community of about 500 year-round residents that explodes each summer into a salmon processing hub. “I’ve never seen it this dead,” Trotter said. Normally the town would be abuzz with fishermen and processing workers. But this year, he said, most have scattered to quarantine locations and limit their activity in town. Many fishermen are waiting out their required quarantines on vessels dry-docked in boatyards, flying the Lima flag–a yellow-and-black-checked pennant that signals a ship is in quarantine. Shop clerks and expediters deliver groceries and other supplies to boatyard entrances, where gatekeepers check people in and out.

The weeks leading up to the fishery are typically full of excitement and anticipation. But not this year. Fishermen are struggling to comply with a confusing mix of state and local rules as they fix their boats and prep gear. Gatherings–including an annual pig roast hosted by a marine repair and fabrication company–have been cancelled. With faces covered, old friends are hard to identify. People are wary of shaking hands. Trotter feels that while most people are following the rules, some are cutting corners–breaking quarantine, shunning masks–which fuels a sense of suspicion in a place where camaraderie normally reigns. “Everybody’s kind of watchdogging everyone else,” he said.

Even once fishing gets underway, no one knows what price Alaska salmon will fetch at the market. Restaurant closures and high unemployment have bit into demand for seafood globally, and possible disruptions to harvesting, processing, and transportation could further reduce the number of salmon that end up on seafood counters. According to Gunnar Knapp, a retired professor of economics at the University of Alaska, Anchorage, and an expert on the salmon industry, the current market situation for Alaska salmon is “horrifically uncertain.”

Holly Wysocki grew up in the Native village of Koliganek, in the headwaters of the Nushagak River, a Bristol Bay tributary that each summer turns into a salmon highway. With her family, she set shore-anchored nets along the river, and by age nine was nearly a full-fledged crew member. Now, at 34, she brings her two-year-old daughter to the same fish camp where she grew up.

“We’re trying to do the best we can to follow” the state’s protocols for setnet fishermen, Wysocki said, “but it comes with a lot of work.” The rules delineate quarantine requirements, restrict contact between fishermen and local communities, and encourage cross-training of crew members in case someone falls ill. Getting ready for this unprecedented season has been a struggle, she said, but she understands the risks. “A lot of the elders are really scared,” she said. “They don’t feel like we should have fishing.”

Nonetheless, preparations for the season continue—even as Covid-19 cases mount, and fishermen and industry workers stream into Bristol Bay. Wysocki summed up the situation: “We’re having to plan for the worst and hold our breath.”

Lead image: Boats wrapping up a day of fishing on Bristol Bay in the 2019 season. Photo by Nathaniel Wilder.

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