COVID-19 outbreaks in seafood processing plants in Alaska and Chile have highlighted how the virus is still wreaking havoc on the global seafood industry, more than a year after the first cases were reported outside of China.
Despite hopes that the start of vaccination efforts in the U.S. and elsewhere might eventually bring an end to the problems the virus has caused, the seafood industry is still treading carefully, trying to thread the needle between worker safety and maintaining profitability – or at least solvency.
Trident Seafoods is now reporting 135 COVID-19 cases at its remote processing facility in Akutan, in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands. The Seattle, Washington, U.S.A.-based company announced on Monday, 18 January, that four employees had tested positive for the virus, but in a 26 January update, Alaska state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said the outbreak is still on an “upward trajectory,” as not all workers had yet been tested for virus positivity. As of earlier this week, 44 percent of the 307 workers who had been tested had gotten positive results.
"I don't think this outbreak is going to end in the next several days," McLaughlin told KUCB. "I think it's going to go on for a while."
The state of Alaska has rushed COVID-19 tests and other medical supplies to Akutan, and has evacuated several employees to Anchorage for more advanced medical care.
“Right now, the company is taking all appropriate measures to limit further spread of the virus within their workforce,” said Thomas Koloski, an Alaska state emergency management official, told the Seattle Times.
On 21 January, Trident announced a three-week pause in operations at the plant as it seeks to get a handle on the outbreak. The closure is a blow to the company, which has an estimated 700 employees at the facility and was planning on sending around 365 more hands to help with the imminent pollock A season. Those employees may now be shifted to other Trident locations, though the company said it will pay all its workers for quarantine time and is “working to provide support to make their isolation as tolerable as possible.”
“It’s extremely difficult and impactful to do this,” Trident Government Relations and Seafood Sustainability Vice President Stefanie Moreland said. “A pause in operations is a sacrifice and burden for all of us at Trident, as well as for our partners. We’re working through a variety of scenarios to lighten the burden for everyone affected by changes in our operation plans.”
Trident CEO Joe Bundrant said the company had leaned on lessons learned from others in our industry that have dealt with similar situations in recent months.
“Our review of protocols has so far shown that our robust quarantine protocols have been closely followed and successful,” he said.
“We have not determined how the virus entered Akutan but are investigating all potential gaps. This serious action to stop operations is necessary to allow us to do everything we can to provide a safe work environment and resume full operations as quickly as possible,” Bundrant said. “We’re very mindful of the sacrifice our people are making. We’re putting the health and safety of our workers first while working to understand and mitigate operational impacts. Those impacts are really secondary.”
Bundrant said he is optimistic about bringing the Akutan plant back into operation after the three-week break.
“We feel with the full cooperation from employees on site, we’ll be able to resume full operations in approximately three weeks,” Bundrant said. “Health and safety are our absolute priority. We have said from the beginning of this pandemic that if we have an issue, we’re going to shed a light on it. We want to be sure people are aware and know that we are taking this very seriously.”
Nearby Akutan in Unalaska, fellow seafood processor UniSea is also dealing with a major COVID-19 outbreak that has affected at least 40 employees, according to an update from the City of Unalaska. The company, which is owned by Nippon Suisan Kaisha (Nissui), is still awaiting the results of a mass testing effort. It received its last load of cod on 4 January before shutting down operations, and despite a previous statement from UniSea President Tom Enlow saying he hoped to reopen by 20 January, the plant remained closed as of 22 January, according to Alaska Public Radio.
Also in Unalaska, Westward Seafoods shut down its Alyeska Seafoods processing facility after a cluster of positive cases of COVID-19 was discovered, the City of Unalaska said in an update. The Maruha Nichiro-owned operation has also gone into shutdown, Alaska Public Radio reported. And last weekend, Unalaska-based Ocean Peace, which catches and processes Alaskan whitefish, reported seven COVID-19 cases out of its crew of 52. The vessel has ceased fishing and is traveling to Anchorage to quarantine, according to the City of Unalaska.
The processing facility shutdowns have had a knock-on effect on local fishing vessels, which are either stuck with fish they cannot drop off or are keeping their crews in isolation to avoid community contact. Brent Paine, the executive director of United Catcher Boats, whose members fish for Bering Sea cod and pollock, told Alaska Public Media if the plants reopen soon, there won’t be too much disruption to the fleet, but that extended closures “would be costly and much more disruptive.”
“We’ve got some pretty serious problems to solve here,” Paine said. “The further into [pollock] A-season we go, if we don’t have processor capacity, we will have less opportunity to solve the problems.”
Prioritizing vaccinations of seafood processing workers needs to be considered by state and federal officials, Dr. Ann Jarris, the chief executive of Discovery Health – who has consulted for Trident – told the Seattle Times. Quarantines, masking, and social distancing only go so far in protecting workers that often have to live and work in close quarters.
“We have done everything we can. But there is so much community spread out there,” Jarris said.
In Chile, several salmon processing facilities have also closed in the past two weeks due to COVID-19 outbreaks, according to industry association SalmonChile.
Salmones Austral, Cultivos Yadran, and Marine Farm each shut down their facilities in Quellón last week, and only began letting workers back into their facilities on Monday, 25 January after negative COVID-19 tests, according to SalmonChile Territorial Director Tomás Monge.
According to SalmonChile, the salmon industry will assist in a search for cases, carry out mandatory PCR tests for all processing plant workers and finance COVID-19 tests in the community.
In a press release, AquaChile said it too was only allowing employees with a PCR negative test results to enter its Quellón and Cailín plants. Additionally, the company has arranged for unlimited free testing for employees, and emergency airlifts for any seriously ill employees in need of transfer to Puerto Montt for more advanced medical care. The company has acquired certification from the Chilean Safety Association for all seven of its Chile plants, which requires on-site verification of 100 percent compliance with safety standards set by Chile’s health authority.
"Since the beginning of the pandemic, the company has been adopting various initiatives and protocols for the care of its employees, which we have been constantly evaluating to incorporate improvements," Aquachile Industrial Manager Juan Pablo Rodríguez said in a press release.
According to the Quellón Facebook page, the region recorded 66 new COVID-19 cases between 27 and 28 January, with 624 active cases, with 32 patients hospitalized. The municipality’s active caseload is nearly double what it was a week ago – on 20 January, it had 332 active cases.
A few local elected officials have been calling for a wider, 14-day shutdown of salmon-processing activities until the current spike in cases abates, according to Biobio Chile.
Photo courtesy of AquaChile