Some locals fear that history could repeat itself unless Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R) shuts down the upcoming salmon fishery, which attracts more than 12,000 workers from across the country for a frenetic, two-month season that begins next month.
Dunleavy’s administration has pledged to implement safety measures to prevent the importation of the novel coronavirus, including a mandated two-week quarantine for arriving fishermen. But some local officials say they’re not convinced the state can enforce those rules.
“Our streets, they start looking like Fifth Avenue in New York during the summer,” Samuelson said. “It puts you in a real funny mood listening to the stories [about the 1918 pandemic] and what our people had to go through.”
There have been no confirmed infections of the coronavirus in the region, and Alaska has one of the lowest infection rates of any state. It has recorded just 368 cases and nine deaths from covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.
But an outbreak could quickly devastate this area.
Bristol Bay’s sole hospital has just two ventilators and 12 beds suitable for covid-19 patients, with surge capacity for 20 more. The only way to access more advanced medical care is by boat or plane.
“I think, in the end, we’re going to look back and realize that we didn’t do enough. And that’s the part that keeps me up at night,” said Alaska House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, a political independent from the area and the first person with indigenous heritage to hold his position.
“Everyone is truly trying to put as many safeguards in place as possible,” Edgmon continued. “But I think at the same time, whether people admit it publicly or not, the region is not going to be fully protected this summer.”
Bristol Bay produces much of the wild-caught sockeye salmon sold in U.S. grocery stores. The region’s fish typically represent about 40 percent of the global sockeye catch, and the 2018 harvest was valued at more than $700 million after processing at onshore plants, according to Anchorage-based economist Garrett Evridge of the McDowell Group research firm.
Dillingham, about 300 miles southwest of Anchorage, is the region’s largest year-round community, with a majority-indigenous population of 2,400 — a number that grows substantially in the fishing season.
Less than two years ago, the region recognized the 100-year anniversary of the flu pandemic, which wiped out the adult population in some villages and settlements, according to government and fishing-industry accounts from the time.
“For most of us, it’s only two or three generations away from those stories about people being lost,” said Dillingham Mayor Alice Ruby, 64.
With that history in mind, officials across Bristol Bay are calling on Dunleavy’s administration to implement widespread testing for workers and fishermen before they fly into the region. In an April 18 letter to Dunleavy, a group of mayors questioned the state’s protocols for testing and criticized limits on local review of companies’ virus containment plans submitted to the state. They said the administration’s plans for the fishery seemed “fully intent on marginalizing local communities.”
Last month, Bristol Bay Area Health Corp., the tribal health-care provider for Dillingham and surrounding communities, called for the fishery’s closure.
But with more than 1,000 of Bristol Bay’s residents working as captains or crew in the fishery, local opinions are mixed about whether the season should be shut down.
In Bristol Bay Borough, an area east of Dillingham that is home to a number of major processing plants, leaders want to see the season go forward with precautions, said Mayor Dan O’Hara, who also has indigenous heritage.
“It seems like some of the fear and anxiety is easing a little bit,” he said.
At a recent news conference, Dunleavy called Bristol Bay leaders’ concerns “legitimate.” His administration has issued rules requiring that fishermen wear masks while traveling and, after arriving, go directly to their vessels for a two-week quarantine, with no stops for groceries or other supplies. Violators can be punished with steep fines or even prison time.
The state aims to test every incoming fisherman and processing worker, and it expects to secure tens of thousands of tests for that purpose, said Adam Crum, state commissioner of health and social services.
Dunleavy’s administration also has offered local governments security contractors to man checkpoints, control traffic and educate fishermen on quarantine requirements, Crum added. And it has helped line up private planes owned by recreational fishing lodges that could be used for emergency evacuations, he said.
“We truly, sincerely want to understand where the communication disconnect is, to make sure it is addressed,” he said. “Because we’re very mindful of the fact that they live there.”
Similar tensions have bubbled up across the state as the summer salmon season approaches. In Sitka, an island community along the Alaska Panhandle, a top medical official criticized a seafood company’s plans to bring in 450 seasonal plant workers from the Lower 48 states and Mexico as “naive” and “contradictory to medical reason.”
In Cordova, 150 miles east of Anchorage across the Prince William Sound, concerned residents have posted open letters on KeepCordovaSafe.com pleading with local officials to limit incoming fishermen and processing workers. And in the Aleutian Island fishing port of Dutch Harbor, medical workers have questioned fishing companies’ plans to have employees serve a two-week quarantine onboard big factory ships, rather than onshore.
But the scale and complexity of the problem are unrivaled in Bristol Bay, where salmon has been commercially harvested for more than a century. In particular, residents say they’re worried about the independent skippers and crew members who they fear may not follow rules without strict enforcement.
Jake Clemens, a 29-year-old skipper who grew up in Alaska and lives in Colorado, said he’s sensitive to Bristol Bay residents’ fears and isn’t sure whether he’ll fish this summer.
During last year’s six-week season, Clemens said he and his two deckhands caught salmon worth $170,000. About $20,000 went to each crew member, while Clemens took home $40,000, which he put toward debt payments. The rest went into a business account for future expenses and taxes.
This year, regardless of whether the fisheries open, those debt payments amount to $16,000 for his boat and $7,000 for his permit, plus nearly $20,000 in other fixed costs.
If he and his crew fish this year, Clemens said, they will quarantine at home for two weeks before flying to Alaska, then observe the additional two-week quarantine imposed by Dunleavy.
“If something did happen, and something was linked directly to my crew and it got out, I don’t know if I’d be able to really forgive myself for that,” he said.
The Dunleavy administration has required companies that run Bristol Bay’s processing plants to draft plans to minimize the risk of their seasonal workers spreading infection.
Eleven companies have pledged to effectively put their properties on lockdown for the duration of the fishing season, banning visitors from entering and employees from leaving.
Trident Seafoods, one of the largest seafood companies in North America, is requiring workers to serve out a two-week quarantine monitored by security guards after flying to Anchorage.
The fishermen-funded Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association created a covid-19 response team to research economic aid and protocols for safe travel, quarantining and medical response.
The group has negotiated for cheaper rates for medical evacuation insurance and is buying 8,000 Buff headbands that fishermen can use as masks. And it’s exploring the use of large fishing vessels as hospital ships in Bristol Bay in case an outbreak happens, said Andy Wink, the association’s executive director.
“There’s no getting around it: When you bring more people into an area, there will be more risk,” Wink said. “But it’s not 1920, it’s 2020. The state’s been doing a good job of keeping the numbers down and limiting the spread of this, and we feel like that’s achievable in the bay here, too.”