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Business/Economy

Alaska fishing community takes precautions as it prepares for salmon season

Commercial fishing boats take up much of the Cordova boat harbor on September 17, 2019. (Marc Lester / ADN)

As Alaska’s top doctor put it, “We know the fish are coming regardless of COVID-19 or not and we can’t ask them to stay home.”

As a result, government officials and fishing stakeholders statewide are working to ensure Alaska can still have a strong summer salmon season even amidst a potentially prolonged COVID-19 winter.

Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink made the comment during a March 30 press briefing, adding that the state has a specific fisheries work group trying to figure out ways small communities can handle an influx of fishermen and processing workers while also adhering to important health guidelines that run counter to the realities of a traditional fishing season.

While Alaska’s diverse fisheries continue year-round, the famed Copper River sockeye and king fishery that unofficially kicks off the salmon harvest in mid-May each year will be one of the first testing grounds for trying to find that balance.

United Fishermen of Alaska Executive Director Frances Leach said fishing groups across the state have been working for weeks to find ways to adjust normal fishing operations in light of the host of challenges the virus — and steps taken to fight it — raises. It started with crowdsourcing to simply identify who was doing what to make sure everyone is rowing in the same direction, Leach said.

“Communicating is huge. Commercial fishermen are kind of infamous for not giving away their secret fishing spots so trying to shift gears and make sure we’re all communicating and sharing information during this time is really important,” she said.

The goal is to standardize new health guidelines and corresponding procedures for each fishery as much as possible to make sure fishermen and support workers know what is expected of them. Leach said industry leaders are in the process of developing and submitting vessel action plans to the state that detail what steps they will take to prevent the spread of the virus while they are fishing and how they will respond if someone on their vessel develops symptoms during the season, among other considerations.

The plans are not special to the fishing industry; each company working in an industry deemed critical by state officials must submit a similar COVID-19 Worker Mitigation Plan to the state Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development if workers arriving prior to May 1 will not be quarantined for 14 days to monitor for symptoms of the virus. The plan requirement could also be extended beyond May 1 if the virus remains a significant threat to public health in the weeks and months to come as many health experts expect it will.

“Just because we’re considered a critical workforce doesn’t mean that we can just run off and start fishing,” Leach said.

She’s hopeful the state will adopt operating parameters for each segment of the industry in order to simplify the process because absent that, the state officials would literally have to review thousands of action plans for each individual fishing vessel, Leach said.

“We have so many types of fishing vessels and fisheries in the state of Alaska that one plan cannot be applied to every single vessel in Alaska. We’re going through and catering plans to each type of vessel,” she said.

At the epicenter of the rapidly approaching Copper River fishery in Cordova, Mayor Clay Koplin said city officials have been doing their best to prepare for the ranging impacts of the virus since late January even though the isolated Prince William Sound community has yet to report a confirmed case of COVID-19.

The city’s protective provisions have mirrored the state’s fairly closely, Koplin said, noting the city put its own 14-day self-quarantine mandate on intrastate travelers ahead of health mandates issued by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

“We are acting as if the virus is already here on one hand, so we’re being proactive internally but we’re also acting as if the virus isn’t here and we have to keep it out,” Koplin said.

Cordova is also requiring fishermen and processing companies to submit action plans similar to the state, Koplin added, though the state plans will be accepted at the city level.

He acknowledged there is a “high state of fear” among Cordova residents about what the salmon fishery might bring. However, fishing also accounts for roughly 90 percent of the city’s economy, so still having a viable season is extremely important, he said.

Cordova’s year-round population of approximately 2,300 is boosted by upwards of 860 fish processing workers at the peak of each summer season, according to state Labor Department figures. In addition, roughly two-thirds of the nearly 540 commercial fishing permits for the area are held by individuals from outside the community, Koplin said, and with each vessel comes several crew members.

He said many stakeholders have quickly done what they can to ease residents’ concerns as much as possible and assist the city in the COVID-19 fight. Leaders of fish processing companies have been submitting their virus prevention and operating plans and some started doing so even before they were asked to do so, according to Koplin.

“They filed very aggressive plans up to and including bringing in their own medical staff for the season and they have lots of bunkhouse space so they can essentially kind of quarantine their entire operation except for the fleet and that’s where a lot of our concerns are,” he said.

The city also has Vessel Operator Mutual Agreement forms on its website for both large and small operators to sign that outline the local government’s expectations and requirements for working in the fishing industry amid the ongoing pandemic.

Koplin said the situation largely requires more pre-planning by fishermen who typically buy fishing gear, boat parts, groceries and other supplies in Cordova prior to the Copper River fishery.

“We would prefer that they do exactly what residents are doing. Don’t engage in any kind of interaction that you don’t absolutely have to,” Koplin said of arriving fishermen.

He added that a lot of what fishermen will need to do when, and before, they get to Cordova will depend on where they came from.

“If they come up on a seiner and they stop in Ketchikan (where 13 COVID-19 cases had been reported as of this writing) for three weeks and then come to Cordova we’re going to be extremely concerned,” Koplin described. “But if they leave Seattle and they’re in route for two weeks and they don’t really have any human contact then they’ve effectively quarantined before they got here.”

With fishermen coming from all over, it can be difficult to communicate with the entire salmon fleet, so city officials are utilizing the state Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission as a conduit to communicate their expectations to fishermen, he said.

If a fishermen or processing worker gets sick, Koplin stressed that they should call health facilities instead of going to them to limit their exposure to others if they indeed have contracted the virus.

Department of Fish and Game Cordova Area Management Biologist Jeremy Botz said he doesn’t think the measures being taken to limit the spread of the virus will significantly impact management of the Copper River sockeye and king fishery.

“Every season is pretty dynamic as far as the fishery goes. Until the fish start returning we really don’t have a clear sense as for what to expect,” Botz said.

At this point, he expects managers will have their normal means to assess run strength but if they are put in a position where they don’t have those tools they can turn to their best available historical data to manage the run.

Botz said he is planning for a fairly normal season in terms of fishing effort.

“It’s hard to imagine a scenario where we wouldn’t be able to go out and have a commercial fishery,” he said.

Market uncertainty

While everyone in Cordova is working to make the fish catching go off as smooth as possible, the market end of the equation could pose another challenge.

The Copper River sockeye and kings are prized as the first fresh salmon of Alaska’s season and some years consumers at high-end restaurants and markets in Seattle pay upwards of $60 per pound for the most sought-after king fillets.

This year, however, that market is missing.

Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute Executive Director Jeremy Woodrow said ex-vessel prices for early season fresh halibut — traditionally purchased by restaurants — have been depressed and a somewhat similar scenario is expected for Copper River salmon.

However, Woodrow said processors should still be able to sell their product if they adapt to the new market conditions. Frozen salmon portions are selling well and canned salmon “is flying off the shelf” these days, he added.

“I think Americans are more in-tune about supporting the American economy right now,” Woodrow said, and that sentiment could hopefully translate into buying more Alaska salmon for their own dinner tables this year.

“If this challenge continues there’s likely going to be some lessons that can be learned from the Copper River fishery,” he said.

Koplin noted that Cordova resembles a ghost town during fishing openers and said ideally the town will look that way as long as the COVID-19 threat lasts, whether folks are out fishing or not.

“I guess my preference would be that every day of the week looks like that ghost town — that people are on their boats or they’re going out and doing some sport fishing in between commercial openers; anchoring up in their favorite cove and just not spending the time in town for their own health and that of the community,” Koplin said.

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