Mayors, tribal health group sound alarm over Alaska fishery

Joaqlin Estus

The tribal health organization that serves Alaska's Bristol Bay region wants the state to call off this year's season at the world’s richest sockeye salmon fishery. “If COVID-19 comes to our region, even the handling of our summer injuries may be next to impossible."

Joaqlin Estus

Indian Country Today

As thousands of fishing captains and crew members from around the United States prepare to descend on Alaska’s Bristol Bay, local mayors are calling for more and stronger measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, while the region’s main health care provider says the fishery shouldn’t open at all.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy this week issued a new mandate imposing disease prevention measures for fishers. He is directing all fishing captains and crew members to wear masks en route to the region, and telling them to self-quarantine for 14 days once they arrive. They’re to practice social distancing and avoid interaction with the community. And, they’ll get their temperature checked twice a day during their stay.

If a crew member gets sick and cannot be isolated from the rest of the crew, the entire vessel will be under quarantine. Such vessels will be required to fly a yellow and black, or “Lima,” flag, signaling their vessel is under quarantine.

Before they can sell or off-load fish to a buyer, captains must show documentation they are complying with the mandate.

The Bristol Bay fishery is one of the largest in the nation. Last year, it generated 14,000 jobs and pumped $306 million into the economy.

The new rules may not ease the fears of local mayors and medical providers. They’re concerned about the lack of resources and enforcement, among other issues.

Also Thursday, the Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation said in a statement it fears the arrival of thousands of people will put the 28 villages it serves at risk. So far there are no reported cases of COVID-19 in the region.

The tribal health organization said as the region’s sole provider, it is responsible for providing medical care to anyone who needs it. It “has a surge plan in place for year-round residents, should the need arise, but it does not have the resources to plan for additional influx beyond that surge,” read the statement.

The health corporation said it has received no commitment of additional resources from the state of Alaska or city of Dillingham. “Without a plan of action, BBAHC resources will most likely will be strained and overwhelmed.”

Its one hospital has 16 beds, 12 of them outfitted for patients seriously ill with COVID-19. It has no intensive care capabilities.

The health corporation’s President and CEO Robert J. Clark was quoted as saying: “If COVID-19 comes to our region, even the handling of our summer injuries may be next to impossible. We are genuinely concerned about our capabilities to absorb several hundred potential COVID-19 cases.”

The corporation went on to say there are no commercial flights between Dillingham and the outside world, and chartered medevacs come at a very high cost, if they’re even available during a pandemic.

The hospital said it lacks enough protective equipment for the current population, and has limited capability to perform COVID-19 tests. Also lack of availability and weather may interfere with keeping supplies in stock, the corporation stated.

“While BBAHC has historically supported the fishing industry and values its importance to the area, the organization is respectfully requesting this year’s fishing season remain closed to protect its ability to care for current residents,” the statement said.

Meanwhile, in a strongly worded letter, a handful of Bristol Bay mayors asked Alaska’s governor to talk with them about how to prevent the spread of COVID-19 when 12,000 to 14,000 fishers and fish processing workers show up for the fishery, which opens June 1.

Otherwise, the mayors wrote, “this letter is to make it unequivocally clear that we are going to engage in whatever measures we deem necessary to provide the highest level of protection to the people who live in Bristol Bay.”

Attempts to reach three of the mayors for comment were not immediately successful.

In their letter, the mayors said they object to the state’s COVID-19 prevention planning process, which they said seems “fully intent on marginalizing local municipalities and in effect removing them from the decision-making process.”

The state directed fish processing plants to submit plans to prevent the spread of the disease, but left municipalities out of the review and approval process.

The mayors want the economic benefits of a strong salmon fishery, they wrote, but are concerned about the lack of testing before workers arrive in their communities. They want to talk with the governor “about processor plans/responsibilities, having in place appropriate enforcement measures, health care facilities and, very critically, the means for proper testing to be administered.”

The mayors of the Bristol Bay and Lake and Peninsula boroughs, and the communities of Dillingham, New Stuyahok, Manokotak, and Togiak signed the letter. 

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

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