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Bristol Bay feels odd and empty as fishing season nears

This type of sign is at the entrance of every processor and boatyard in Naknek in Bristol Bay, June 2020. (Photo by John Schandelmeier)

There is different feel to Bristol Bay this June. The airplanes are only two-thirds full. No one is talking. People are almost unidentifiable behind their masks.

Acquaintances who haven’t seen each other in a year are loath to shake hands. It is early in the season, but the Bay seems empty.

For those who having been coming here to fish salmon for decades, Bristol Bay is going to keep that empty feeling this season. Cannery workers will come as always, but they will remain behind closed gates at all area processors. Many businesses will only be here to fill preexisting contracts. Some are not coming at all.

Stores are open, but limitations on the number of customers at a given time accentuate the emptiness.

Many fishermen will skip the season. The reasons vary. Some fear a catastrophic spread of COVID-19 will come with the influx of Lower 48 and foreign workers. Others need major vessel work which will be difficult or impossible to get done under the current cannery protocols.

There are also many who are here with the hope of a normal season once they get on the water and the salmon arrive. That’s a Pollyanna concept for certain, but hope does spring eternal.

This type of sign is at the entrance of every processor and boatyard in Naknek in Bristol Bay, June 2020. (Photo by John Schandelmeier)

Given the recent positive tests among seafood workers arriving in Alaska, it seems likely the Bay will see a similar spike.

Bristol Bay processors have the largest crews in the state. Some canneries have 400 to 500 workers who work in a complex of only a few acres. The new coronavirus thrives in close proximity. An outbreak at one facility could shut that plant down, and the fishermen who depend on that market are suddenly out of business.

There are no alternative markets in the Bay. Ninety percent of fishers are tied to a single market. You could spend the normal amount of money preparing for the season only to see everything wash away.

That said, as one of those who needed to do boat work, it has been interesting navigating the changing state and Bristol Bay Borough health mandates. Changes on a daily basis have caught some of us in a fluid environment; what was necessary to do today may not be required tomorrow.

Living off cannery grounds is a challenge. There is no place to get drinking water unless you have a friend who lives in the area.

Fishermen who live on their vessel on cannery grounds are required to stay there until their boat is in the water. They may not return to the cannery dock until they are headed for home. While at the cannery they can access selected facilities but cannot leave to get parts or supplies. This must be done by a cannery runner.

Despite the uncertainties of the 2020 season, you can’t help but notice the beautiful spring western Alaska is experiencing. The leaves are in full summer mode. Flowers are in their full summer mode. Birds that were running a bit late in the Interior are midway to hatching out in this area.

And if the saying “lots of cotton, lots of fish,” holds water, the sockeye will arrive in a silver horde.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives near Paxson with his family. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.