Russia's salmon season facing coronavirus complications

The Russian Far East salmon fishery, which runs from 1 June to 1 August, is facing a new set of challenges in 2020. With projections predicting the lowest harvest of recent years, the fishery is expected to see a reduced value even if prices maintained normal levels – all while necessary measures needed to tackle COVID-19 are increasing expenses. 

According to Russian fishery science, the season’s catch is going to be only 384,000 metric tons (MT), 36.7 percent less than in 2019, and almost half of record-breaking 2018, which saw a catch of 667,000 MT. 

Breaking that catch down by species, Russia predicts humpback salmon will, as usual, see the largest volumes with a projected catch of 222,800 MT; Siberian salmon a catch of 113,500 MT, pink salmon a catch of 39,000 MT, coho 8,400 MT, king salmon roughly 500 MT, and cherry salmon 30 MT.

Through 28 June, 6,139 MT had been caught, the worst result over the last five years. Roughly 60 percent of the catch was red salmon. That amount didn’t increase much by 13 July, with Fishnews reporting the catch at 17,500 MT.

The gloomy forecast, and the results from June and early July, were not something unexpected. Scientists predicted it based on evaluations of big catches in the last few years. Overcrowding of breeding grounds naturally results in high catches in the short term, but leads to a decline in the midterm.

It’s only the first stage of the declining trend in humpback salmon, said Igor Melnikov, deputy head of the Pacific branch of the Russian Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography (VNIRO) during a session of the Far Eastern Scientific Production Council. In his words, the next few years will see catches close to the average seen throughout the 2000s. 

Over the course of a season, the scientific recommendation is typically revised, usually trending upwards. So, there is still a little hope that fisheries will eventually enjoy larger volumes.  

Low predicted volumes is just one side of the struggles for Russia’s far east. The coronavirus pandemic is another, and much more serious, risk than the relatively low catch.

Russia’s Far East is the least populated area of Russia. The population of the Kamchatka region, where most Russia’s salmon is caught, is just under 313,000 – with a population density less than 0.7 people per square kilometer.

For the salmon season, additional labor forces are badly needed to make up for the lack of local population. For Kamchatka, that means 11,500 temporary workers need to be brought from other regions to supplement 6,000 workers hired from local communities. Those high guest numbers are creating the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks, with a possible impact on operational and financial results of fisheries.

“We must ensure self-isolation for workers coming for fishing and processing. We must also organize the labor reserve that could be deployed should positive cases emerge,” Ilya Shestakov, head of the Russian Federal Agency for Fisheries, said during one of the scientific sessions that took place before the start of the salmon season.

There is another dimension to the issue that stems from the region’s isolation. Workers live and work in coastal areas, rather distant from cities and towns with quality medical services. Those remote areas lack sufficient medical support, and an outbreak of the coronavirus may result in considerable harm to locals. 

Trying to minimize the risks associated with COVID-19, the regions’ authorities are implementing measures that have been adopted worldwide – including Russia’s capital, Moscow. While most Russian regions abandoned the idea of mandatory isolation, in Kamchatka it seems the right time to adopt a tougher approach. 

Along those lines, the Kamchatka region introduced digital passes for all non-residents. The system was designed and launched specially for the fisheries’ temporary workers, though it is not limited to them. Any person, arriving in the region, is required to report their employer and identify where they are staying for the duration of their contract. 

All workers are also obliged to a 14-day quarantine at a place provided either by authorities, or by the employer. 

In the Sakhalin region – situated to the north of Japan – requirements include the possession of a certificate showing a negative COVID-19 test that was conducted less than three days before the person’s arrival in the region, which is to be shown to officials just upon the arrival. Even with a negative certificate, all newcomers to the area are obliged to spend 14 days in quarantine. 

The salmon season is of critical importance to profits of fisheries, regional economies, and the national harvest, sometimes contributing more than 10 percent of the country’s catch – such as what happened back in 2018. Because of that importance, authorities have decided to take additional measures to avoid the risk of any shutdowns or suspensions of operations.  

A portable inflatable hospital pod has been delivered to distant areas of the Kamchatka region by a Ministry of Emergency Situation’s (Emercom) helicopter, to ensure fast management of the disease in case it scales up. If needed, it can be quickly moved to any location – for instance, a fish processing plant – and be fully operational within three hours, the press service of Emercom stated. 

Kamchatka’s Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Khabarov told the Fishnews media agency that the pod will be used if there are 10 or more infected workers in a location. When needed, additional Emercom and medical forces can be deployed. If the number of infected is less than 10, they will be transported to a hospital by air. 

These extensive measures obviously create pressure on profits. As Vladimir Galitsyn, the chairman of the Kamchatka Salmon Catchers Association, said at an online conference organized by Fishnews media group, daily costs to accommodate a temporary worker in a quarantine facility are RUB 5,000 to RUB 6,000 (USD 70.20 to USD 84.25, EUR 62.50 to EUR 75.00).

Given the duration of the quarantine period, the mandatory isolation of the roughly 11,500 workers transported to the area could cost up to RUB 1.035 billion (USD 14.53 million, EUR 12.94 million). 

The financial aspects of the salmon season – with a lot of unexpected expenses falling onto fisheries’ budgets – urged businesses and authorities into considering sharing the cost burden. Given the social importance salmon fishing holds for the local communities, state funding is one of the tools the fisheries might rely on.

In the Sakhalin region, Governor Valeriy Limarenko voiced an idea to provide fisheries with subsidies to compensate the expenses for the facilities for the quarantined workers. Fishing is an economically risky business, with the results being rather unpredictable, he said. So, it’s worth considering the idea of providing funding for the fisheries at the end of the year.

It’s still unknown whether other regions will follow the suit. But with COVID-19 seemingly sticking around, the industry is likely set to negotiate some preference from the government.  

Photo courtesy of Konstantin Baidin/Shutterstock


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