Rigorous preparations help ease virus fears in Alaska fishing towns

Joaqlin Estus

‘It started ugly … like pitchforks and torches’

Joaqlin Estus

Indian Country Today

When the coronavirus was declared a pandemic and began spiking in parts of the lower 48, people in Alaska fishing towns got worried.

Relatively few cases had emerged in their state, but fishing season was approaching, meaning workers would soon be arriving from across the U.S.

In Dillingham and other communities in the Bristol Bay region, home to the world’s largest sockeye salmon run, many locals demanded the season be called off.

“They're seeing everything happening in the pandemic, and then concerns about ‘What happens if we have an outbreak in our village or our community and we don't have the means to handle it?’” said Jim Kostka, marketing director for Copper River Seafoods, which has processing plants in almost all of the state’s fishing ports. "So it was almost like pitchforks and torches, like ‘No one's coming into our community.'"

Fast-forward to this month, and fishing is either underway, or getting close, in southeast, southcentral, and Interior Alaska, the Aleutian Islands and Bristol Bay.

Fishing boats, Kodiak, by Raymond Bucko, SJ, courtesy of Creative Commons
Fishing boats, Kodiak, by Raymond Bucko, SJ, courtesy of Creative Commons

Some of the fears have subsided, in part because of rigorous preparations in towns such as Cordova, Dutch Harbor/Unalaska, Kodiak, Naknek and Dillingham.

“It’s been a lot of stress getting to this point, a lot of stress,” said Dan O’Hara, mayor of the Bristol Bay Borough. “We were meeting three times a day. But people stepped up. It’s working so far.” 

The Alaska fishing industry employs as many as 60,000 people annually. Each May and June, thousands of processing plant workers, fishing captains and crews arrive in communities with populations from a few hundred to 6,000 people.

In April, the state required fish processing companies to develop plans with strict safety procedures to ward off the virus. Tribes, agencies, the military and community groups have moved in quick cooperation to carry them out.

Locals note it's still early, but they've already seen the system working.

2020  Cordova Dock offloading
Men unloading fish, Cordova. (Photo by Brandon Blake, Copper River Seafoods)

The state mandated that all out-of-state workers be tested as they arrive and at the start and end of a 14-day quarantine. Fish processors set up quarantine quarters in hotels, B&Bs, or on plant grounds.  Some workers were quarantined in Seattle or Anchorage before flying to rural Alaska, O’Hara said.

Workers generally arrive by plane, some in chartered flights that limit exposure to the general public. O’Hara said in Naknek, the workers are bused to their quarters. Buses and facilities are sanitized several times a day. And, “every employee gets their temperature checked when they show up for work and when they leave,” Kostka said.

Fishermen stay on their boats. Fishing captains must show logs documenting their compliance before they can sell their catch.

Testing of workers has revealed 32 with COVID-19. Those employees were immediately isolated from other workers and given medical assessment and care.

Copper River Seafoods logs every visitor to its plants or offices, Kostka said. “Really, it’s a low-budget contact-tracing mechanism.”

Fish processing plants have some similarities to meat processing plants, with employees working shoulder-to-shoulder “making cuts and inspecting meat, and passing it down the line,” Kostka said.

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

Processors have installed barriers and staggered workers in some areas. “They were 6 feet apart, or across on a diagonal.”

They also have sanitizing supplies and gloves for workers.

Ocean Beauty Seafoods put up a chain-link fence around its plant in Naknek. “It’s got a gate and a guard. And when workers come in they stay there until they go out [leave town] on the 27th of July,” said O’Hara.

“The processors’ plans were fantastic,” O’Hara said.

“Things are definitely coming together,” agreed Kendra Gottschalk, Yup’ik, tribal administrator for the Village of Naknek in Bristol Bay. “We're getting the village kind of set up for the fisheries to come in. …We've all done a lot of planning and prepping, and we're finally getting our final PPE [personal protective equipment], and we have things like sanitizer and masks and gloves that we're putting on the community.”

Businesses have been diligent about having their own stricter guidelines and following state mandates, she said.

“I mean, we're still pretty quiet around here, you know, June  the next few weeks is where we're going to see the most influx with people coming in. So, we're curious to see what happens.”

The Christian charity Samaritan’s Purse recently announced the gift of a 30-bed emergency field hospital to the Bristol Bay community of King Salmon. The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and Bristol Bay Health Corporation will be staffing it. Many of the region’s clinics have testing equipment and supplies, and teams of health professionals are on standby to fly to villages lacking staff or equipment.

“We are very very thankful,” said O’Hara, for the cooperation and assistance, and the fact that only a handful of people in the region have tested positive for COVID-19.

Meagan Christensen, Alutiiq, chair of the Native village of Afognak, in Kodiak, said getting people to agree to get tested, and ensuring they go into quarantine was a worry. The tribe is restricted in its ability to enforce requirements on travelers.

“Although we're an island, and we have limited means of accessibility, we don't own our airport. The state owns the airport. And we don't manage the airport. The airlines manage the airport,” she said.

However, in addition to other mandates, Gov. Mike Dunleavy recently announced that travelers from out of state need to be tested for COVID-19 before or upon their arrival in Alaska or undergo the 14-day quarantine.

2020 First Copeer River KingKing
(Photo by Brandon Blake, Copper River Seafoods)

In Unalaska, in the Aleutians, “everyone has masks on, everyone” at the stores and the post office, said Chris Price, executive director, CEO for the Qawalangin Tribe of Alaska of Unalaska/Dutch Harbor.

He said concern for the health of elders has been foremost in everyone’s mind.

“That's pretty much been from the get-go,” he said, noting the tribe arranged to get food delivered to elders, gave them gift cards and has paid their utility bills.

Price said Unalaska had it better than some communities because it has several other fisheries — pollock, halibut, black cod — as well as salmon. As the pandemic emerged, fish processors already had workers there.

Kostka, of Copper River Seafoods, said Alaska's high unemployment rate, as “horrible” as it is, helped them hire more locals rather than flying workers in.

People understand it’s in their best economic interests to stay healthy, he added.

The salmon fishing season is short, just three months. Everyone involved knows “it would destroy the whole market if they were to do something reckless that, you know, caused the outbreak that closed down the community during that period,” Kostka said.

“’Cause we really are all in it together. And if one of us goes rogue and makes a mistake, it impacts everybody.”

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

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