Alaska News

Dillingham asks state to close $300 million Bristol Bay salmon fishery

Dillingham city and tribal leaders have asked Alaska’s governor to consider closing the $300 million Bristol Bay commercial salmon fishery, saying an influx of workers poses a grave risk to the region’s limited health care infrastructure during the coronavirus pandemic.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy is “not planning any closures at this time,” said Jeremy Zidek, a spokesman for the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

In a letter sent Tuesday to state leaders, Dillingham suggested it might take matters into its own hands if Dunleavy doesn’t close the salmon fishery for the approaching 2020 season.

“If your office is not prepared to address this critical problem, then we may find the need to do so,” says the letter, signed by Mayor Alice Ruby and Curyung Tribal Council First Chief Thomas Tilden. “We don’t want to find ourselves in conflict with the State of Alaska, especially when our objectives are the same.”

Bristol Bay is home to the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world. Last year, the fishery broke records with a preliminary value of $306.5 million, the highest recorded . A similar-sized run is expected this year, said Douglas Vincent-Lang, the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Up to 12,000 workers travel to Bristol Bay as early as May to prepare for the fishing season, which starts in mid- to late June.

The letter from Dillingham says thousands of processors and members of fishing crews will descend on Bristol Bay and surrounding villages and work in conditions where social distancing mandates can’t be followed.


[Thousands of fishery workers, many from outside Alaska, are headed to Bristol Bay. One tiny hospital says its coronavirus plan can’t handle them.]

The city and surrounding villages don’t have any way to “control the movement of this group,” the letter says. “This is unacceptable and places us in an impossible situation.”

Fisheries have been designated as critical infrastructure within the state, meaning they can operate but businesses must submit plans explaining how they will keep the population safe from the spread of the new coronavirus.

Bristol Bay communities shouldn’t have to trust the commercial fishing industry to ensure local residents’ safety, the letter said.

“We should NOT have to rely on the courtesy of industry to be included in such a critical exercise,” the letter said.

If people get sick, Dillingham would be faced with a “mass disease situation,” the letter says. Someone would have to decide how “limited medical resources” are used.

“We must decide now whether those resources should be devoted to current residents or instead to a temporary labor force?” the letter says.

The letter asks for a decision to be made right away.

“We are at the point where a decision must be made,” the letter says. “A delay will bring us so close to the opening of the fishery that any alternatives will be impossible.”

But Vincent-Lang, the Fish and Game commissioner, says it’s too soon to make such a sweeping decision. Other fisheries are currently happening around the state, including Bering Sea crab and Kodiak roe herring, under the mandates, he said.

“It is premature to decide on the ultimate fate of the Bristol Bay salmon fishery at this time,” said Vincent-Lang. “Things are changing rapidly.”

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Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.