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Bristol Bay processors offer plan aimed at keeping massive salmon fishery safe

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A group of seafood processors has offered details on how they would ensure safety in Alaska’s lucrative Bristol Bay commercial fishing season amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, a day after Dillingham leaders told the governor the fishery poses an “unacceptable” risk to local communities and should be canceled.

On Tuesday, Dillingham’s mayor and tribal first chief sent an open letter to Gov. Mike Dunleavy, asking him to cancel this summer’s Bristol Bay salmon fishery, the biggest by volume in the world. Last year, the total value of the catch set a record at $306 million.

Eleven seafood companies planning to participate in the Bristol Bay fishery this summer released a letter Wednesday “to confirm our commitment that we are prioritizing health and safety” of local communities.

The letter is addressed to the “communities and tribal councils of Bristol Bay.”

In it, the companies list measures they plan to take to minimize the spread of the new coronavirus among the processing workforce, and into Bristol Bay villages.

Among the precautions:

• Temperature checks and questions at the Seattle or Anchorage airport.

• Most employees would travel to Bristol Bay through the King Salmon airport.

• Processors will close their campuses to visitors and not allow employees to leave.

• Employees would observe the 14-day state-mandated quarantine before working.

• Social distancing would be practiced “whenever possible," including staggered meals and prohibiting employees from “congregating in groups.”

• Fishing fleet movement will be minimal within the community and in processing plants.

• Workers will be medically screened before each shift.

Executives from North Pacific Seafoods, Peter Pan Seafoods, Ocean Beauty Seafoods, Deep Sea Fisheries, Alaska General Seafoods, Silver Bay Seafoods, E&E Foods, Copper River Seafoods, Trident Seafoods, Icicle Seafoods and Leader Creek Fisheries signed the document.

“We commit to implementing these guidelines and have incorporated them into our plans,” the companies wrote.

Commercial fishing has been designated as essential critical infrastructure, meaning businesses are allowed to operate if they submit plans to the state detailing measures taken to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

State officials have so far refused to release the plans submitted by businesses that want to operate as “essential critical infrastructure,” citing “confidential information” provided by businesses. But the plans of seven seafood processors are shared on the Bristol Bay Borough’s website.

In their own letter to the governor, the Dillingham leaders raised concerns about relying on industry to police itself during the crowded and busy salmon season, and raised the specter of how the rural region would respond to a “mass infection” with limited health care resources.

Alice Ruby, the mayor of Dillingham, said she didn’t want to respond directly to the letter from processors, which she said appeared to be addressed to the communities of Naknek and King Salmon.

While some processors have volunteered their plans, processing “is only a part of the overall commercial activity that has to be considered," Ruby said.

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