Safety protocols in Alaska evolving amidst growing COVID-19 concerns

Published on
April 7, 2020

The seafood industry is adapting and tightening its safety protocols as fears grow over summer fishing activities spreading COVID-19 in rural Alaska.

In Bristol Bay, Alaska, a recently released document signed by local industry heavyweights like the Bristol Bay Regional Development Association and the Bristol Bay Native Corporation suggests that all workers test negative within 48 hours of traveling to the region.

Upon arrival in Bristol Bay, designated transport would take workers to a place of controlled quarantine for a follow-up test for COVID-19, with health screenings twice weekly throughout the season, which usually runs from June into the first days of August.

After release from quarantine, the document says, workers would then be expected to follow a growing list of recommendations from the state, tribes, and local municipalities. The letter also stresses the region’s limited medical capacity and urges the industry to provide its own medical assistance in the case of COVID-related issues.

Even with protocols starting to take form, many locals, fishermen, and industry observers wonder how the approximately 12,000 non-resident workers that flood Bristol Bay every summer will be effectively screened.

Alaska state guidelines require all workers to self-quarantine for 14 days and be accounted for in a work plan, but most of the region’s local fishing villages have leveled their own travel restrictions that go beyond state requirements. Historians estimate up to 60 percent of the local native population was killed by the Spanish flu in 1918 and 1919, and local resistance to the typical summer influx is growing.  

A resolution went into place on Monday, 6 April, for the City of Dillingham that requires all travelers to apply for a permit from the city. Dillingham is one of two major transportation hubs in the area, and a local tribal council has recommended an emergency order that would halt non-essential travel in and out of the city.

The village of Egegik, which hosts part of the fleet every summer, has stopped all travel until 27 April, when they will reassess the situation.

In Cordova, Alaska, homeport of the famous Copper River salmon fleet, Mayor Clay Koplin told the Anchorage Daily News that residents are in “high state of fear”, and vessel operators must file a written statement with the city agreeing to their local guidelines.

Meanwhile, another industry work-group wrote an open letter to the community of Unalaska, home to the nation’s most productive port by volume, Dutch Harbor. The letter, which is signed by representatives from the Pacific Seafood Processors Association, United Catcher Boats, Freezer Longline Coalition, and the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, seeks to allay local concerns.

“As our individual member companies develop response plans, their goal is to keep healthy people healthy. This means implementing screening protocols for incoming employees, detection and quarantine protocols to identify and contain any suspected case of COVID-19, new cleaning, disinfecting, and sanitation standards, and best practice for distancing standards. Trade associations are also advocating for access to FDA approved rapid point of care testing for remote Alaskan fishing communities to assist with early and accurate detection,” the letter said.

The letter also said the industry is working with a committee that includes Unalaska community leaders and health practitioners, stating that their ‘most urgent’ order of business is to involve members companies and trade associations “to help ensure that the Unalaska health care system is equipped to meet the needs of the community.”

Photo courtesy of Mark Stephens Photography/Shutterstock

Contributing Editor reporting from Seattle, USA

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