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With pandemic procedures in place, Copper River fishery set to open

Copper River sockeye salmon in a tote. (Marc Lester / Anchorage Daily News)

With about two weeks until the Copper River salmon season, the industry is pulling together the details of how to execute a safe fishery amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Hundreds of vessels and workers flood into Prince William Sound each May for a chance to harvest the first fresh wild king salmon of the year, followed by the famous Copper River sockeye and the broader Prince William Sound pink salmon fisheries. However, with limited road access and health care facilities, city and state officials have been coordinating with the fleet and stakeholders about how to safely allow in deckhands, captains, and processing workers from Outside without inviting the pandemic to Cordova as well.

As of April 28, Cordova had not reported any positive tests for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. With no ferry service this winter and no connection to the road system, Cordova has limited physical contact with the rest of Alaska and the Lower 48 except during the fishing season. Bringing in seafood workers from outside the area poses a risk, but not doing so means the fishery — a vital economic driver in the region — wouldn’t be able to operate as normal.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration released Health Mandate 17 on April 23, offering guidelines for commercial fishermen to help control the spread of COVID-19. Fishermen often work in close quarters on boats and in harbors, as do processing workers. The mandate outlines requirements such as screening procedures for crew, quarantine for workers coming into the state, and prohibiting non-essential trips into town for non-local crew, among others.

“Fishermen are very concerned and have been concerned since day one,” said Francis Leach, the executive director of the United Fishermen of Alaska. “Now that procedures have been put in place, there are a lot of questions. It’s always a learning curve. Folks are really going to have to pay attention to (the mandate).”

UFA, along with other stakeholders, weighed in on the mandate prior to its release. Having the mandate helps define what fishermen need to figure out for their plans for the summer, Leach said. It also eliminates the need for every individual fishermen to submit a plan of operation. A number of fisheries are already operating, including halibut longliners, and though salmon are the largest fishery by number of employees, the UFA represents all commercial fishermen across the state.

One of the hanging questions, though, is how to make sure fishermen get access to the equipment they need to comply with the mandate. One of the items required is that captains conduct temperature screenings on crewmen before boarding and “as needed to minimize risk,” according to the mandate. Right now, with the demand on personal protective equipment and medical supplies high in all areas, getting enough disposable thermometers, masks, gloves, and sanitizing materials could be a challenge.

“Different sectors of the industry are working on that,” she said. “It’s very hard—you can’t just run down to the store right now and get a thermometer. At least, in Juneau you can’t.”

The Alaska Manufacturing Extension Partnership, housed within the University of Alaska, is working to make more Alaska-manufactured PPE available, including face masks and sanitizing equipment, by helping manufacturers convert to making the equipment. While some is available on demand, other items can be arranged on an as-needs basis, according to the Alaska MEP.

While many of the Copper River fleet’s workers live locally in Cordova, others live aboard their vessels or come to the community for the season. Cordova District Fishermen United, a trade group representing Copper River-area fishermen, is working to get clarification about whether fishermen who live aboard their vessels during the season qualify as locals and therefore can disembark and enter Cordova, said Chelsea Haisman, executive director of the CDFU.

The group is also seeking clarification for what constitutes a “non-essential” trip into town. Overall, though, the mandate simplifies some of the aspects of Mandate 10, she said.

“As far as the uncertainties go, a lot of it is trying to navigate the businesses around town, getting parts and groceries and things,” she said. “It’s definitely changing the way the fleet operates; it’s definitely not business as usual.”

There is uncertainty among the fleet going into this season, as the COVID-19 situation is changing frequently, particularly as it regards travel to and from communities, Haisman said. However, the stakeholders have been involved in the City of Cordova incident management task forces and have been regularly coordinating with the processors to deal with the season’s challenges.

Most of the fleet is concerned with how to operate the fishery without endangering coastal communities, she said.

“We acknowledge the concern of communities as the season begins and we will continue doing important outreach to ensure that fishermen have the information on all state and local mandates, as well as access to resources to help them get their vessels geared up for the season,” she said.

Processors have been working together this spring to try to determine best practices for worker safety while still operating in Alaska. Many salmon processors, including Cordova, operate facilities in remote communities and bring in workers from all over Alaska and Outside to work for the season. The processors have been in close communication with the state, communities and stakeholders, Leach and Haisman said.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has jurisdiction over processing plants and can take enforcement actions if the operators do not comply with safety measures. Dunleavy’s Health Mandate 3, which closed bars, restaurants, and other food establishments, did not include seafood processors, as they were included in the list of essential businesses. Since the mandate came out, the DEC has received seven complaints of businesses allegedly violating the mandate, said Laura Achee, a spokesperson for the DEC. She did not specify the type of businesses.

“For each, DEC responded by speaking the operator, and the operator voluntarily complied with the mandate with no further action needed,” she said.

Beyond just the logistics of getting the salmon into nets, another lingering question is what will happen to them once they’re on their way to the market. Copper River king salmon are usually greeted by the red carpet of the seafood world, with a ceremony in Seattle when the first arrives via Alaska Airlines flight. In the past, the first Copper River kings have gone for $50 per pound — primarily to restaurants. And therein lies the rub: Most restaurants nationwide are currently closed for social distancing.

It remains to be seen what will happen with restaurants as states and the federal government move to reopen the economy, but right now the prices Copper River fishermen are likely to see are uncertain, said Garrett Evridge, an economist with the consultant firm the McDowell Group.

“In a typical year, we kind of have an establish playbook we can rely on,” he said. “Right now, because everything is changing all at once, we really struggle to understand what’s going to happen.”

Grocery stores don’t typically pay as much nor charge as much for the fish, and as the season goes on, the prices for kings and sockeye usually drop as more fisheries come online. Copper River in the past has been an indicator for how prices may behave in the rest of the season, but this year it may not, Evridge said. The same is true in other regions of Alaska; what’s true in one region for prices may not be true in another this year, he said.

Another factor that may affect demand for Alaska’s seafood is the negative impacts on the economy that will last beyond the end of the pandemic restrictions. Alaska’s wild-caught seafood typically commands a higher price than farmed Atlantic salmon or other comparable products. With millions out of work nationally, the economy may move into a recession, which would affect demand for a higher-price product. Retail demand has been strong, but it’s hard to say whether that will continue, Evridge said.

The first announcement for the Copper River District will be issued between May 1 and May 8, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

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