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Alaska News

Coronavirus outbreak shutters big Alaska fish processing plant just as pollock season starts

The Trident Seafoods plant (foreground) in Akutan. (Helena Buurman, Alaska Volcano Observatory / University of Alaska Fairbanks, Geophysical Institute)

A coronavirus outbreak has shut down the Trident Seafoods processing plant in remote Akutan for three weeks, just as the facility gets ready for the lucrative pollock season.

The plant in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, with up to 1,400 workers and the capacity to process up to 3 million pounds of raw fish a day, is the largest seafood production facility in North America. Bering Sea pollock — the silvery fish found in everything from fish sticks to sushi — is the focus of its operations.

That roughly 10-month season starts this week. Processing for cod and crab was already underway. A Trident statement called the decision to halt operations “extremely difficult and impactful.”

Four employees tested positive over the weekend but broad testing is being held up by weather that’s delaying shipments of test kits and additional medical personnel, state health officials said during a general COVID-19 briefing Thursday.

It’s likely there will be additional positive cases given the congregate nature of life at the plant, state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said, who said Trident “is really working hard to try and isolate confirmed cases as quickly as possible” and identify new cases as well as quarantining close contacts.

“Do we expect further transmission? Yes,” McLaughlin said. “Our hope is that they will be able to get this outbreak under control, as quickly as possible.”

The Trident decision marks the second major processing facility to shut down due to coronavirus outbreaks. The Unisea Inc. plant in Unalaska halted operations after 55 employees tested positive since January, more than half during travel-related quarantine. The facility is one of the largest in the state. Company officials say the plant outbreak started with a New Year’s party in company housing.

Four more workers tested positive this week, according to UniSea president Tom Enlow. He said that wasn’t a surprise because the employees were close contacts of a “hot spot” residential hall with communal washrooms.

The closures don’t mean both plants are sitting idle while other processors and fleets scoop up their share. Unlike derby-style salmon fisheries, pollock is managed on a quota basis in which shares are assigned to cooperatives that decide when they want to harvest their fish.

“There is not much impact overall,” Enlow said Thursday in an email. “(W)e would not be processing much at this time and the fisheries are rationalized, so a late start does not harm us or our partners much, it just delays the season a bit and full quotas can and will be caught and processed.”

Trident on Thursday issued a statement announcing “a three-week pause in operations ... to enable comprehensive testing and support a preventative quarantine for its 700 workers there.”

Officials say they don’t know how the virus entered the Akutan plant. Company representatives have not said whether more cases have been discovered.

Trident this week confirmed four workers — three processing plant employees and one who works in the galley — tested positive for the coronavirus on Sunday. All four tested negative two weeks earlier. The cases weren’t discovered until one employee had trouble breathing and was flown by the Coast Guard to Anchorage for treatment.

The decision to halt operations was based on advice from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services and other industry members, company officials say.

“Our review of protocols has so far shown that our robust quarantine protocols have been closely followed and successful,” said Trident CEO Joe Bundrant. “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.”

All 700 workers in Akutan are staying in company housing and getting daily health checks. Another 365 who were quarantining in Anchorage before heading to Akutan may be moved to other Trident facilities.

Workers are getting paid for their time in quarantine at the closed-campus facility and Trident “is working to provide support to make their isolation as tolerable as possible,” the statement said.

The City of Akutan, Eastern Aleutian Tribes and medical professionals have provided essential assistance through this process, and Akutan Mayor Joe Bereskin personally helped evacuate the employee with breathing problems, according to Bundrant. State officials have met with Trident staff daily.

Trident is the largest vertically integrated seafood harvesting and processing company in North America, according to corporate information. The company employs more than 8,000 people and serves hundreds of independent harvesters throughout Alaska each year. It operates processing facilities in 10 coastal Alaska communities and also owns and operates three large whitefish catcher-processors and four mobile processing ships.

Unisea, meanwhile, is hoping to be back in production by next weekend, Enlow said. The company is waiting for more test results expected Friday to make a determination on a reopening date.

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