Factory trawler returns to Seattle after 85 crew members test positive for COVID-19

SEATTLE -- A Seattle-based factory trawler cut short its fishing season off the Washington coast after 85 of 126 crew tested positive for COVID-19, according to a statement released Sunday by American Seafoods, which operates the vessel.

The test results for the FV American Dynasty are a somber finding for the North Pacific fishing industry, which has been trying to keep the novel coronavirus off the ships and out of the shore-based plants that produce much of the nation's seafood. The outbreak also underscores the toll coronavirus continues to take on the food processing industry across the nation.

In Washington state, outbreaks in meat plants, fruit and vegetable fields and packing facilities prompted Gov. Jay Inslee to order new protections for agricultural and food processing workers.

As part of the effort to keep outbreaks from impacting the seafood industry, the American Dynasty crew, before heading off to sea May 13, were screened for the viral infection and underwent quarantines of at least five days. They also underwent additional testing for the antibodies created by the virus.

“Only if there were no signs that they were actively infected or contagious were they cleared to board their vessel,” said American Seafoods chief executive Mikel Dunham in a written statement.

Somehow, the virus still found its way on board.

[As Alaska fishing season set to begin, fearful communities and seafood industry try to prevent spread of coronavirus]

On Friday, as the vessel docked in Bellingham, one crew member reported feeling sick, tested positive for COVID-19 and was hospitalized. That prompted the company to have the rest of the crew screened Saturday, and about two thirds of them tested positive -- although none had symptoms, according to a company spokesman.

The vessel is now moored in Seattle, and the crew that tested positive have been taken on shore, where they are being monitored by medical personnel.

"The health and safety of our crew, employees and the communities where we operate is always the top priority for us," Dunham. He noted that the company is cooperating with U.S. Coast Guard, Seattle/King County Health Department, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Port of Seattle.

American Seafoods, which operates a fleet of six vessels, is a major player in harvests off Washington and Alaska, with the ability process catches on board into frozen products. Off Washington, the American Dynasty was fishing for hake, also known as whiting, and was later scheduled to fish for pollock during a summer season in the Bering Sea.

At least for now, that vessel's season is on hold.

Dunham said the company has contract medics aboard its vessels, and medical equipment to respond to COVID-19. The company also has put in place “preparedness procedures” in the event of an outbreak. Those plans are now “fully executed,” and updates will be provided as the situation evolves, according to a statement released by American Seafoods.

Hal Bernton, The Seattle Times

Hal Bernton is a a reporter for The Seattle Times and a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News.