'It's hard when you love something'

(Photo by Bethany Branstiter)

Joaqlin Estus

COVID-19 pandemic threatens health in Alaska Native villages and the thousands of workers who usually arrive for the short, lucrative Bristol Bay fishery

Is it possible to even have a commercial fishing season during a pandemic?

Bristol Bay leaders want to figure out how to keep COVID-19 from getting loose in the region when thousands of people show up with the fish.

More Sockeye salmon are caught in Bristol Bay waters off western Alaska than anywhere else in the world. In 2019 fishers scooped up 56.5 million salmon as the fish headed to their streams of origin to spawn and die. Bristol Bay ranked number two in the nation for the value of fish landed. The fishery generated 14,000 jobs and added $306 million into the economy.

“I think we need to call it off,” said Deenaalee Hodgdon, Deg Hit’an Athabaskan and Sugpiaq, from South Nanak. She makes her living as a commercial fisher. “It's hard when you love something and you see it as your only way moving forward in this world.”

But, Hodgdon said, “I think we need to call it off because of the bigger implications that are at stake, not just coronavirus.”

Hodgdon pointed to the fish die-offs in recent years due to high water temperatures in streams where the fish spawn, and other climate change impacts. “I want to believe that we can shut it down. And I think that we need to, because we need to stop and think: What about the fish?”

There’s a lot at stake.

For many of the thousands who work in the Bristol Bay fishery, there are only two months, June and July, when returning salmon become their annual income.

A few times in past decades fishers have gone on strike for higher prices for fish and missed most or all of a fishing season. That led to tough times for them, and bankruptcies for a few fish processors.

The strikes did allow more salmon to escape and spawn. You would think higher escapement would lead to more fish in the following years. But overspawning could also mean a net loss of fish. The fish have to vie for spawning areas and, the following spring, young fish compete for food.

Naknek, a predominantly Yup’ik village of 800 people, is the town with the most processing plants and fishers in the Bay. In May hundreds of fishers get their boats and gear ready there. They stock up on food and fuel then head to sea from Naknek and bring back those tons of fish.

Some 5,000 workers process the fish for freezing or canning. Bristol Bay Borough Mayor Dan O’Hara said about a quarter of the workforce is Alaska Native.

Kendra Gottschalk, Yup’ik, is the administrative assistant for the Native Village of Naknek. She said, “The fishing industry is a pretty big part of our livelihood out here in Naknek. And the infrastructure and the income are pretty pivotal to our economy here as well as subsistence fishing.”

Bristol Bay Borough Assembly member and commercial fisherman Russell Phelps, Alutiiq and Yup’ik, said commercial fishing is an essential job and the Bristol Bay fishery is an essential part of Alaska's economy.

“So are we gonna stop people from coming in here? If I were to say the only way that you're going to stop [COVID-19] is to stop people from coming in here … You could do it, but I just don't see that that's going to happen.”

In addition to wanting assurances the fishing season will move forward, Lindsay Layland, a commercial fisher, said people at a recent town hall wanted to know what measures, restrictions, and changes are being put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“I do depend on the commercial fishery for a large piece of my income, but I also think it's critical to keep our people here safe and healthy,” Laland said. “And we're a pretty vulnerable population with very limited health care resources, which I think a lot of people who live outside of the region, outside the state of Alaska, don't understand to the depth as do the people who live here.”

The local health clinic in Naknek has no beds. The only hospital in the region has four beds, out of 16 total, equipped to handle COVID-19 patients. Plus the only way to get to that hospital from Naknek is by boat or plane. Otherwise the nearest ICU beds are in Anchorage, an hour away by jet.

Borough manager O’Hara said fish processing workers normally came from all over the world, “They did. They have. They had come from the third world countries near Russia and those places. But they're not coming this year,” because a lot of international flights have been cancelled.

ekuk cannery-1
Ekuk Fisheries plant located 16 miles south of Dillingham. (Photo by Misty Nielsen)

In February and March, seafood processing companies were recruiting workers at job fairs across the country -- in Fort Lauderdale, Tulsa, Chicago, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, San Diego, Salt Lake City, Seattle, and Boise. Recruitment ads said crews can expect to work 16 hours a day, seven days a week for $13 to $15 an hour. They also get room and board.

O’Hara said fish processors are arranging to have workers screened and get their temperatures taken in Seattle or Anchorage.

The workers will get their temperatures taken again as they enter local communities and then twice a day at work. Processors are working to line up transportation so workers will go straight from the plane to their quarters, where they will be quarantined for 14 days. At least one plant has said it will fire workers who leave the grounds.

Gottschalk said, “Currently with all the restaurants and everything pretty much being closed down, I don't see that there's much of a reason to leave the processing plants.”

As it happens, O’Hara said, “We had five new bunk houses built this fall. Two of them are three stories high. They're very nicely equipped buildings, they're well cared for and improved.” One of the processors, Alaska General Seafoods, said its old bunkhouse could be used to house workers too.

There are holes in the plans, though.

“The reality is, seafood processing plants are not ideal quarantine facilities. We have mess halls. We have multiple people living in the same room,” said Norman Van Vactor, CEO and president of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation. Speaking at a recent special meeting of the Bristol Bay Borough Assembly, he said the flu has been a common issue in production plants where workers stand shoulder to shoulder in cold, wet working conditions.

Another problem is there’s nowhere for people to go if they get sick.

Van Vactor said, “We have to have a location where we can put these people in and get care for them and probably ship them out to Anchorage if it's a serious situation. So that's still an open ended thing.”

Then, there’s the question of how to corral the other people in Bristol Bay villages for the fishing season. Some 1,800 fishers hold permits to fish in Bristol Bay. Welders, fiberglass fabricators, mechanics, and suppliers also show up.

“Now these fishermen coming in are not tied to an associated processing plant or bunk house or a cook house or any other type of things,” Van Vactor said. “So they're kind of open-ended. We're going to have to try to get a hold of these guys, make sure they follow the safety rules that, ‘you come here you're going to be quarantined for 15 days. Get off the plane and go to your locations, 15 days.’”

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(Photo by Misty Nielsen)

The Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association last week notified fishers from outside the region to delay travel until May first while leaders work out plans to keep people healthy.

Phelps said, the ideal solution would be if everybody would come in and be extra careful, extra vigilant to keep COVID-19 out. But he doesn’t think that’s going to happen.

In public meetings, officials describe fishers as “mavericks,” and “independent.” Phelps said some are ruthless. “They only care about themselves. So it’s very much go and get yours and then get out. It doesn't matter what they have to do in order to get there. A lot of the time the fishermen that come into the community don't really care about the locals. They just want to come make their money and leave.”

“We've had a number of people in the last couple of days show up in Dillingham, and quarantine be damned,” Van Vactor said. “I mean, their first stop in town, you can understand that their first stop in town is the grocery store. I had the local store manager talking about closing the AC store here because his employees, the store clerks, were threatening to quit because people showed up from Seattle and were not in quarantine.”

Layland said “even if they do self quarantine, there's no enforcement, there's no regulation that's gonna ensure that they don't have contact with our community members.”

Gottschalk said one thing working in the region’s favor is that everyone is pulling together to find solutions. She said the Naknek Native Village Council is meeting with other tribal governments, federal and state agencies, and the borough. Fish processors, fishers associations, and the regional health corporation also are engaged.

Still, Phelps is not optimistic anyone will be able to keep the situation under control.

“It isn't going to take a whole lot to get this community infected. And when you’re around here in the summertime, everybody is touching everything,” Phelps said. “You go to the retail stores and people are grabbing things, putting them back,” and touching pens, keypads, credit cards. There are innumerable ways to transmit COVID-19, he said, “so my main concern is if it only takes one or two people to bring it in here, it's going to just explode.”

In his view the only real way out is for local people to “just kind of stay away from out-of-towners and try to stay out of the stores. Get everything done before the workers come in. Keep our elders away, basically quarantine our elders from this for the summer,” Phelps said.

In public meetings, several other people also talked about the need to protect elders. Van Vactor said they have already been scarred by historical trauma. “Our elders in our communities right now come from a generation of orphans. Their great grandparents were orphans because of the 1918 Influenza. Bristol Bay had the second highest mortality rate in the world due to the Influenza.” No one wants to see anything close to that happen again.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy said Friday that the state is engaged in discussions about issues such as travel and will have an announcement this coming week about the challenges facing fishing communities. Those problems are affecting other Alaska fishing towns as well. Ports such as Dutch Harbor, Kodiak, Cordova and Sitka in 2019 helped make Alaska the top state for both pounds of (5.4 billion pounds) and value ($1.8 billion) of fish landed. Statewide, the industry employs nearly 57,000 people

Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.

Correction: fixed the misspelling of the word Sugpiaq.

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