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Business/Economy

Alaska fishing industry grapples with fallout from coronavirus response

A tote of headed and cleaned fish is ready on June 19, 2016, for further processing at Kwikpak Fisheries in Emmonak, Alaska. (Lisa Demer / ADN file)

Like almost all industries and institutions across Alaska, the novel coronavirus pandemic is shaking up the fishing industry.

With restrictions changing almost daily and cases spreading across the United States, fishermen are still fishing, but the normal seasonal progression of the industry is likely to hit some rough waters.

Travel in and out of Alaska has dropped after federal and state advisories against it, and questions are hovering about how seafood processors and fishing vessels will find the employees they need for upcoming seasons. Demand for seafood has fallen in restaurants after sweeping closures, and large numbers of layoffs may affect demand as workers scale back their expenses after losing incomes.

Status-quo industry events have been disrupted, too. Hiring events have been postponed or canceled; the North Pacific Fishery Management Council cancelled its April meeting, and Kodiak’s annual ComFish exposition has been rescheduled for Sept. 17-19 due to concerns about gatherings where the COVID-19—the name for the disease caused by the novel coronavirus—could be spread. As of March 24, Alaska had reported 42 cases of the illness in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Soldotna, Ketchikan, Sterling, Seward, Juneau and Palmer.

The primary recommendation to limit the speed of spread is to maintain physical distance of at least six feet. But it can be hard to limit close contact in the seafood industry, where fishermen work in close quarters on vessels and processing plant workers sleep in dormitories and work together.

Adding to that, the workers in the seafood industry are often seasonal and come from outside the communities where they work, from elsewhere in Alaska, the Lower 48 or international. That’s something the processing industry is working hard to figure out.

For the past few weeks, as cases of COVID-19 have spread across the U.S., seafood processors in the North Pacific have been meeting in a work group to coordinate how to respond to the pandemic, said Chris Barrows, the president of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association.

“From the earliest days of the COVID-19 threat, companies have worked with urgency, together — within this AFISH Committee, to minimize the impacts of this public health threat on Alaskan fishing communities, fishing crews, and processing workers,” Barrows said. “As part of those efforts we have strengthened cross-company information sharing through this AFISH Committee, including through formation of a layered, robust prevention and response network and continue to work together to update guidelines focused exclusively on challenges relating to COVID-19.”

The group is currently working on partnerships with public health and government authorities on how to protect employees and the communities they work in, he said. Many of the plants in Alaska are in remote communities with small year-round populations, such as Akutan, Cordova, False Pass and Dutch Harbor.

Community leaders from the involved regions, including Unalaska and Bristol Bay, are involved in the discussions, and Barrows said leaders from other remote communities are welcome to work with the committee on response and prevention coordination. Government public health and safety officials from Washington, Alaska, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Coast Guard are all involved in the committee as well, Barrows said.

“The network continues to share within the membership guidance on best practices for companies, vessels, and plants throughout Alaska and work to disseminate the most up-to-date information from state and federal authorities to key stakeholders,” he said.

The seafood industry relies on seasonal labor from Outside, much of it from foreign countries. Nelson San Juan, the deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, estimated that the seafood industry brings in more than 20,000 workers to the state each year. The guidelines for how to handle employees coming in from out of state and out of country are still new, he said.

On March 23, Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued Health Mandate 10, requiring anyone traveling into the state — resident, visitor or worker — to self-quarantine for 14 days, from March 24 until at least April 21. Visitors and incoming workers will have to go directly to their hotels or rented housing to quarantine, where they can only leave for medical emergencies.

Businesses who had to bring in workers from Outside to maintain critical infrastructure were required to submit a plan on how they would prevent the spread of the illness and not endanger the lives of other employees or those in the communities to the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development by 3 p.m. March 24, according to the mandate.

Barrows said the governor’s office had informed the industry of the mandate, and the AFISH committee is working on how to handle the quarantine requirement and worker plan. Seafood companies are also updating their screening and monitoring plans with maritime health doctors to prevent anyone with a risk profile from traveling to the remote communities and prevent sick crew members from being placed on vessels or in plants, he said.

“We are all operating in a period of high uncertainty,” he said. “Access to a sufficient and healthy workforce is key challenge among those uncertainties. The industry is working together, and with local, state, (and) federal officials to successfully address such challenges.”

Health Mandate 10 included a list of industries identified as essential to national infrastructure, within which employees would still be allowed to report to work. The fishing industry, including seafood processing, was included on the list, along with other agricultural and food supply industries.

In Bristol Bay, where the workers largely come from out of the region, the mandate raised some concern because of the timeline. The Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association wrote on its website that anyone who needed to bring in workers prior to May 1 had to submit any plan they had before 3 p.m. March 24, while others who need to bring in workers after that date could submit plans now or at a later date to the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development.

BBRSDA originally looked into submitting a “blanket plan” for all Bristol Bay fishermen, but because of the tight timeline, it likely wouldn’t be feasible, and the organization wrote that it would continue to work on it if deadlines are extended.

“In terms of broad advice, it is critical that everyone prioritize partitioning and avoiding increasing the number of places where the virus can live and spread,” BBRSDA wrote on its website. “For partitioning, this means isolating yourself and crew as much as possible until you can get on the water or to your setnet site.”

Under regulations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, seafood processing plants are already required to practice safe sanitizing processes for food products.

So far, the federal government has not found that the coronavirus can be spread through food, according to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. The coronavirus has been found to live on surfaces, but it is unlikely that it will be spread by food products or packaging that has been shipped for a period of time at ambient, refrigerated, or frozen temperatures, according to ASMI.

“As part of each plant’s required preparedness plans, there are contingency mechanisms in place to deal with human disease outbreaks and other externalities so as to protect the health and safety of both employees and the public and guard against threats that could cause a disruption to plant and processing activities,” ASMI wrote on its website. “Human health and food safety are always the priority.”

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at elizabethearl@gmail.com.

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