Alaska steps up COVID-19 safety measures ahead of summer salmon season

Governor Mike Dunleavy’s administration released an extensive new health mandate laying out the latest guidelines for Alaska’s upcoming fishing seasons last week, amidst concerns of the spread of COVID-19 in rural areas of the state.

Health Mandate 17 – which went into effect on Friday, 24 April, and which will be reevaluated on 20 May – is designed “to ensure a safe, productive fishing season this year, while still protecting Alaskan communities to the maximum extent possible from the spread of the virus,” according to the document.

The guidelines focus on independent vessels in derby-style salmon fisheries like Bristol Bay and Copper River, where many non-resident fishermen travel to fish in vulnerable rural areas with scarce medical infrastructure.

United Fishermen of Alaska (UFA) Executive Director Frances Leach was among those the state consulted to help draft the document.

“We do believe that it’s possible to fulfill this mandate, and that we can do this and protect communities and fishermen while executing successful fisheries,” Leach told SeafoodSource.

An 11-page appendix to the mandate outlines the guidelines for fishermen on independent vessels, and requires extensive written documentation from skippers and routine health check-ups for crew members. To help protect local communities, crew members will not be allowed on shore except for essential tasks, and there are new sanitary guidelines, including widespread use of masks.

“We’re working with folks from the state to make sure vessel owners have the appropriate PPEs. A lot of vessel owners are saying great, we need all this stuff, but where do we get it?” Leach said. Among the items vessel owners will need are masks, thermometers, bleach, face shields, and quarantine flags.

Leach added that many fishermen are concerned that some of the requirements, such as six-foot distancing, will be impossible to fulfill on smaller vessels. 

“There are a lot of questions. There are areas we have questions about and there are areas fishermen have questions about. There are definitely some areas that need clarification,” Leach said.

Questions aside, Leach said all fishermen are expected to read the mandate and have a firm plan in place.

“Planning is very important. Fishermen need to familiarize themselves with the mandate and what they need to do, and they also need to know local rules,” Leach said.

In Cordova, home port of the Copper River fishery, the city has published its own list of requirements, which includes mandatory face coverings at the airport and harbor, as well as a 14-day quarantine period that requires boats to fly yellow quarantine flags. Fishermen will also have to register a business plan with the city, and sanitary measures have been ramped up at the docks and boatyards.

“We don’t want to harass people, but we want to have the tools in place to keep the community safe,” Cordova Mayor Clay Koplin told The Cordova Times last week.

Koplin has been adamant that he will not let fishing trump public health. According to the city website, Cordova had no confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Tuesday, 28 April.

Leach added that fishermen need to have a plan in place if someone on the boat gets sick, and pointed permit holders to Appendix 2 of the mandate, which outlines the required documentation that skippers will need on hand to show to processors and officials from the Alaska Department of Fish & Game.

UFA is hosting a webinar on Wednesday, 29 April, at 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time to clarify the new requirements and answer questions. Registration is required, and the webinar will be recorded and made available to the public.

Photo courtesy of MDay Photography/Shutterstock


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