Covid-19 might close the largest salmon fishery on Earth 

Leaders in southwest Alaska’s Bristol Bay — source of nearly half the world’s sockeye salmon and a $1.5 billion industry — this week asked Alaska Gov. Michael Dunleavy to shut down the fishery to protect public health.

Each year, thousands of fishing industry workers from across the nation and world descend on this remote, Iceland-sized region, where about 7,000 year-round residents live in a handful of communities accessible only by air or sea. During the salmon season, which begins in June, the population triples. The only hospital in the region has 16 beds, and most communities have little or no health infrastructure.

In March, the governor declared the fishing industry part of the state’s “essential business,” exempt from many of the Covid-19 restrictions on other sectors. On Monday, Alice Ruby, the mayor of Dillingham, the largest Bristol Bay community and hub to the fishing industry, along with Thomas Tilden, first chief of the Curyung Tribal Council, delivered an impassioned plea to Dunleavy. “Our communities will be the FIRST to be impacted,” they wrote. Citing the possibility of “a potential mass disease situation,” the letter suggests that if the governor doesn’t take action, the local community will. They did not elaborate.

More than 80 percent of Bristol Bay residents are Alaska Native, many of whom are generational survivors of the Spanish flu, which tore through the region in 1919, decimating Native villages and turning schools into foundling houses.

“It’s a serious threat to our rural communities,” said Everett Thompson, a local resident, tribal member, and commercial fisherman who hasn’t missed a salmon season since 1984, when he was seven years old. His great-grandmother was orphaned by the pandemic a century ago, which may have been brought to the region by seasonal cannery workers.

A closure of the fishery “doesn’t land well with someone who has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to have a boat and a permit,” said Andy Wink, executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, the trade group that represents the fishing fleet. Historic salmon harvests in recent years — last year’s return of 56.6 million salmon was 45 percent higher than the 20-year average — have triggered huge investments in the fishery.

For weeks, the fishing industry has been focused on mitigating the risks of Covid-19. “We think we can have a safe season,” said Wink. Instead of carrying out marketing efforts, as he would be doing in a typical year, he’s been working with a team of more than a dozen fishermen to draft protocols for the fleet — such as roping off boatyards to keep fishermen in and others out —to reduce contact between the fleet and local communities and to avoid overwhelming scant medical services. “If we’re going to have a season, we’re going to have requirements to protect community and industry health,” he said.

But on boats and seafood processing “slime lines,” in bunkhouses and tight galleys, there’s no way to practice social distancing during the salmon season. Even if the fishery opens, no one knows whether fishermen — typically a fiercely independent group — would follow the safety protocols or who would enforce them.

Every part of this industry is faced with unprecedented uncertainty. Seafood processors, which employ about 26,000 workers across the state, need a healthy workforce in place before the season begins. “You can’t really wait when the fish show up. You’ve got to process,” said Tim Schmidt, fleet manager for Icicle Seafoods, one of the primary processors in the region.

For years, workers from overseas have been “the backbone of the industry,” explained Schmidt. U.S. workers, including the college students Schmidt worked with shoulder to shoulder on the slime line when he began at Icicle in 1980, no longer want these physically demanding jobs. But for weeks, routine visa services have been suspended around the world.

With a tsunami of unemployment claims flooding states around the country, seafood processors think there will be a solid source of U.S. labor. But it’s uncertain how companies will get workers to the region with travel restrictions in place, how they’ll meet the state’s 14-day quarantine requirement, and how they’ll keep workers healthy in tight living and working quarters.

Even if the mostly Seattle-based processing companies solve these dilemmas, no one knows who will be buying fish at the other end of the supply chain. According to Jeremy Woodrow, executive director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, nearly two-thirds of seafood meals consumed in the United States are eaten at restaurants. Global closures have taken a big bite out of the demand. Frozen and canned salmon sales remain strong, as people stock up on healthy options for home cooking and to fill the pantry.

Most fishermen understand what’s at stake on both sides of this issue. Even if the fishery isn’t officially closed, fourth-generation salmon fisherman Melanie Brown, who lives in Juneau, might stand down this season. This would mean next to no disposable income for her and her two kids for the rest of the year. “I want to honor the wishes of the people of Bristol Bay,” she said.