Coronavirus recently arrived in Bristol Bay, Alaska, and some local leaders want to cancel the multi-million-dollar sockeye salmon harvest entirely.

By Betsy Andrews
May 19, 2020
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Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, Vitamin D, and antioxidants, sockeye is health food for your heart, brain, eyes, and skin. And given the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s careful management of the fishery, it’s a sustainable resource. In 2018, according to the ADFG, 63 million sockeye returned, and a record 41.9 million of them were netted. Bristol Bay is, by far, the world’s largest sockeye fishery, and the biggest salmon fishery in Alaska. It is a well-tended natural bounty valued at more than $1 billion. Along with the other salmon fisheries in Bristol Bay, it returns an annual $14.7 million to local governments and employs a third of the residents in the largely indigenous communities. Norman Van Vactor, President and CEO of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation (BBEDC), estimates that, all totaled, salmon fishing brings up to $200 million into the region each year.

Subsistance Caught Bristol Bay Sockeye Salmon Drying On A Rack, Iliamna, Southwest Alaska, Summer
Scott Dickerson / Design Pics / Getty Images

There are many reasons to feel good about eating Bristol Bay sockeye, but this is 2020, a year that has complicated everything in food. While subsistence salmon fishing is essential to the region’s 6,700 residents, the commercial fishery is operated primarily by outsiders. As of now, there are less than 400 confirmed cases of COVID-19 across Alaska. But as 13,000 fishermen, processors, and other workers from around the world arrive in May for Bristol Bay's season, which begins in early June, they bring the danger of spreading the virus to isolated communities with few medical resources.

For the locals of Bristol Bay, the possibility of an outbreak engenders a horrifying dèjá vu. “Our people keep saying that we went through this already,” says Alannah Hurley, executive director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, a consortium of 15 Yup’ik, Den’ina, and Alutiiq tribes representing 80 percent of the region’s inhabitants. She’s referring to the Spanish flu, which arrived in Bristol Bay in 1919, possibly on a cannery ship, and decimated the native population. “A lot of us are descendents. So for native people, the devastation of a pandemic is not an obscure concept,” she said. “We are the people raised by the orphans who survived.”

A commercial fisherman walks past a salmon mural on a store in Dillingham, Alaska.
Anchorage Daily News / Getty Images

Anxiety has been running so high in Bristol Bay that some leaders want the commercial harvest called off. “Our board of directors have stood on record: We do not want a fishing season. It’s too risky,” says Robert Clark, CEO of the Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation, which operates the region’s only hospital.

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Clark’s position reflects the inadequacy of local hospital resources. “If people in Seattle and New York are dying because of an overloaded healthcare system, imagine a region the size of Ohio with just 12 hospital beds equipped for oxygen, no ICU, limited medevac capacity, and two ventilators,” Hurley says.

Stopping the influx of outsiders, however, is not on Alaska Governor Michael J. Dunleavy’s agenda. He declared the state’s salmon fisheries “essential businesses” and issued mandates relative to the industry: Incoming travelers must undergo health screenings and self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival, but not testing; businesses must submit safety plans for handling incoming workforces. Some of the larger, Seattle-based processors are promising to lock down campuses, prohibiting incoming workers from leaving the compounds for the duration of the season.

But many of the fishermen are independent, fishing in boats no larger than Bristol Bay’s allowed length of 32 feet. With few lodgings that can quarantine travelers there, most crew members are expected to wait it out on board. The risk of spreading infection under those circumstances is high, says Hurley: “You’re in close quarters with three to five other people. There’s no running water on the majority of boats. It’s ludicrous to think that quarantining here with those limitations is reasonable.” Her organization, along with Vactor’s, Clark’s, and others, has been demanding pre-testing and enforced pre-quarantine of outsiders before they arrive, and security and additional medical resources from the state to help monitor and treat the fleet.

For its part, the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, which represents the fleet, “supports the use of testing, quarantines, and any other actionable tactics and best practices that protect the health of all local community members and industry stakeholders,” says BBRSDA marketing director Lilani Dunn. To that end, the organization wrote a letter to Governor Dunleavy on May 1 requesting a host of resources: equipment and personnel for testing and health monitoring, floating medical facilities, PPE, security details for enforcement of quarantine and social distancing.

A fish processor on the Naknek River in Bristol Bay.
Jeffrey Rotman / Alamy Stock Photo

When asked, on May 6, what concrete actions the Governor’s office had taken in reply, Dunn answered, “Planning between the state of Alaska, processors, and communities is ongoing and changing daily. It’s too early for us to comment on what the state of Alaska may or may not do.”

The Governor’s office and Alaska Department of Health and Social Services had promised state-funded enforcement for quarantine, tens of thousands of COVID-19 tests, and help with medevac services to evacuate the sick. But with people already arriving for a fishery opening in less than a month and “zero implementation to date,” Hurley had said on the same date, “it’s already too late.”

That same day, the Alaska salmon fishery had its first case of COVID-19 when an incoming worker at the Ocean Beauty Seafoods plant near the Copper River, 300 miles east of Bristol Bay, tested positive. They were asymptomatic and had tested negative in pre-arrival screening beforehand.

The case distressed residents of Bristol Bay. In a big, busy processing facility like Ocean Beauty’s, an undetected virus can spread like wildfire. “The canneries are akin to meat plants having issues in the Lower 48,” Clark says.

The incident seems to also have shaken the Governor’s office. On May 14, a delegation of federal and state officials, including the senior medical officer for Homeland Security, Dr. Alexander Eastman, arrived in Bristol Bay to tour its tiny hospital and village clinics and to promise much-needed help.

They were just ahead of the virus. On May 16, an incoming worker for Trident Seafoods tested positive while under work-in-place quarantine in Bristol Bay. In a follow-up press release, the BBEDC’s Norm Van Vactor, along with Hurley’s and Clark’s groups and other native entities, reiterated demands for mandatory pre-arrival testing and quarantine. With Alaska Airlines beginning flights into Bristol Bay on May 18, the groups pointed out that the floodgates are opening on incoming fishermen and processors.

In response, the State updated its health mandates to suggest, but not require, testing, and to include the option of quarantining mid-travel, in Juneau or Anchorage, where lodging and health facilities are more robust. Officials also announced the establishment of two Bristol Bay testing sites, at the hospital and at the harbor. Both are located in Dillingham, the region’s largest community, which now requires those quarantining in town to undergo testing toward the end of their lockdown.

Given residents’ concerns and the uncertainty of the developing response, some in the industry have decided to sit out 2020 altogether. John Foss, the owner of Fish Business Company, has been traveling to Alaska to fish for sockeye and other wild seafood for four decades. This was the season that he planned to realize his dream of launching an artisanal microplant, with a local workforce canning and smoking fresh-caught salmon. Instead, he’ll be staying at home in Seattle. “I’ll wait another year. Nobody needs to die for me to make money.”