Alaska’s Rural Fishing Communities Are The Next Front Line Of COVID-19

As thousands of workers flow into remote parts of the state for the start of the season, a patchwork of rules and a lack of enforcement has locals worried.
Salmon in a fishing boat on Alaska's Naknek River.
Salmon in a fishing boat on Alaska's Naknek River.

In a normal season, the village of Naknek in southwestern Alaska would be bustling by the end of May, with people arriving from all over the world to work Bristol Bay’s renowned salmon run.

The village’s population of around 500 swells as over 13,000 workers come to Bristol Bay to spend about six weeks fishing, canning and cleaning the products of the world’s primary source of wild-caught sockeye salmon.

This year, with the season opening just days away, “it still feels like a ghost town,” said Nels Ure, a second-generation Bristol Bay fisherman. Because of the pandemic, “it’s not business as usual.”

Seafood industry workers are under 14-day quarantine orders once they arrive in Alaska from elsewhere. Cannery workers are being quarantined either in hotels in Anchorage before they arrive at the bay, or with a group of other newly arrived employees at their facility, so they can start work while in quarantine together. Fishermen are expected to quarantine on their vessels, either in the boatyard or on the water ― or they can stay in their seasonal cabins or homes around the bay, as long as they are self-isolated.

Their work is vital to the region’s economy. Last year, Bristol Bay’s salmon industry and its workers generated $300 million in revenue. But this year, there’s concern that the thousands of people who travel here for seasonal work could bring the coronavirus with them. As of May 31, Bristol Bay has had five confirmed cases of COVID-19. Many are worried that the close quarters on boats and in canneries are the perfect environment for spread, which would create a dangerous situation in a region with limited medical resources. A confusing jumble of state and local guidelines, often weakly enforced, could make the situation worse.

Workers clean salmon carcasses on a cleaning line at the Alitak Cannery in Alitak, Alaska, in 2008.
Workers clean salmon carcasses on a cleaning line at the Alitak Cannery in Alitak, Alaska, in 2008.
Lucas Jackson / Reuters

In early April, concerned community and tribal leaders around Bristol Bay wrote to Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy (R), asking him not to open the commercial fishing season at all. But fishing is considered an essential industry in Alaska, generating more than $5 billion a year in economic activity statewide. The pandemic has damaged Alaska’s economy, which relies heavily on tourism, oil and gas ― putting additional pressure on this year’s fishing season.

Bristol Bay’s remoteness has largely protected it from the coronavirus so far. But now it’s facing the same challenges that have plagued meatpacking facilities in the Lower 48, where almost 5,000 workers have contracted COVID-19.

Bristol Bay’s main hub, Dillingham, has a year-round population of just 2,300. Its hospital has 16 beds, two ventilators and no ICU. City manager Tod Larson said he’s had trouble even securing basic personal protective equipment. While the fishing industry is fairly self-contained, Larson said, it relies on regional medical infrastructure when things go wrong.

“It won’t take much to overwhelm the system,” he said.

Navigating A New Normal

The fishing industry is trying to find ways to keep working under the new parameters. The state says independent fishermen can quarantine on their vessels with other crew members, so long as they start their 14-day quarantine at the same time. They also say anyone showing any symptoms “should be isolated” ― but that may be difficult to put into practice, especially on a small boat.

The Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, an economic organization representing fishermen in the region, is handing out flags so boats can note their crews’ status. A black and yellow checkered Lima flag means the boat is in quarantine; a solid yellow Quebec flag means the vessel is in the clear.

The state has issued various guidelines for the fishing industry that overlap confusingly with local and tribal mandates, all of which rely heavily on self-enforcement. As of June 6, for example, most people arriving in Alaska will be allowed to skip the 14-day quarantine if they can show a negative COVID-19 test from within the previous 72 hours. But that won’t apply to seafood workers, who must still quarantine for two weeks.

Setnet cabins near Pederson Point in Alaska.
Setnet cabins near Pederson Point in Alaska.
Nels Ure

Many towns and tribal governments in the region also have their own policies to sort through. Dillingham is requiring a 14-day quarantine, in addition to a negative COVID-19 test result at the beginning of quarantine and another one at the end. The Bristol Bay Borough, which represents the towns of Naknek, South Naknek and King Salmon, is not requiring testing or enforcing quarantines for new arrivals. But the communities’ local tribal councils have instituted mandatory 14-day quarantines. And while most seafood processing companies in the area are requiring testing for workers, the borough does not require independent fishermen to test negative for COVID-19.

Kendra Gottschalk, an administrative assistant at the Naknek Native Village Council, said she wishes there were one uniform set of restrictions around the bay.

“It’s just ever-changing,” Gottschalk said. Communicating what is required “has been a really gray area.”

Testing A Region’s Capacity

In order to increase the amount of testing available in Dillingham, the Animal Control Building has been converted to a testing site that Capstone Clinic, a family medical practice based in Anchorage, is running.

Carey Perry, who is coordinating the logistics for the site with Fairweather, LLC, said he feels they are “well-equipped.” As of June 4, they had conducted 640 tests, running 101 tests on the clinic’s busiest day so far. Perry says they anticipate needing to run 300 to 400 tests a day shortly as charter flights with seafood industry workers begin to arrive. He estimates they will conduct 8,500 tests during the season.

Dillingham, Naknek and several other communities around Bristol Bay now have testing available in village clinics.

But Larson remains worried about the seafood processing facilities in Dillingham. The state required the major companies operating around the bay to submit independent COVID-19 protocols, but some are more comprehensive than others. Even with new protocols, Larson said, “it’s still a lot of people in a small area.”

A Bristol Bay drift boat making a set during golden hour.
A Bristol Bay drift boat making a set during golden hour.
Nels Ure

“There are certain aspects of the processing line that make it difficult to maintain social distancing, but that’s the idea behind having everyone tested negative before the season starts,” said Miles Sturm, a safety coordinator who works at a Peter Pan Seafoods processing facility in Dillingham.

Sturm said workers will also be required to remain within the fenced-in facilities, and a guard is stationed at the gate 24 hours a day. “There is always the fear of something getting in,” he said, “but it is being taken very seriously.”

About 60 Peter Pan workers arrived in Dillingham the third week of May, and were shuttled directly to the processing facility for a “working quarantine.” Everyone in the facility is supposed to wear a mask and observe social distancing guidelines. The mess hall is no longer self-service, and employees now eat in their rooms.

“Even in a normal year, people spend almost all their time at the facility,” Sturm said. Capstone tested all of them on May 22 and found no positive cases. They were to be tested a second time at the end of their quarantine period this week.

But there are already signs that this might not be enough. The Bristol Bay region had its first COVID case on May 15 when a nonresident seafood worker was tested at the end of their 14-day quarantine. May 20 saw the first positive local case in the Chignik area. On May 29, two people tested positive in Naknek, and an out-of-state seafood industry worker tested positive in Dillingham on May 30.

Other places are already seeing COVID-19 cases among fishing industry workers. On May 29, a crew member on an American Seafoods factory trawler scheduled to arrive in Alaska’s Bering Sea later this summer was admitted to the hospital in Seattle. Testing revealed 85 cases among crew members ― showing just how quickly the virus can spread in the close quarters of the fishing industry.

On June 4, Alaska reported 17 new cases in seafood workers around the state. Ten of those new cases were reported in a single processing facility in Whittier.” As of June 5, there had been 33 confirmed cases among nonresident seafood workers.

A fishing vessel on the Naknek River.
A fishing vessel on the Naknek River.
Nels Ure

‘The Virus Doesn’t Make Exceptions’

Even before the pandemic, rural Alaskan communities, which are predominantly Alaska Native, lacked health care infrastructure, said Alannah Hurley, the executive director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay. Many people rely on the periodic visits of traveling health aides, or must travel to larger urban centers for care.

Some communities lack running water, and housing is in short supply. “Overcrowding is a really big issue in Bristol Bay,” Hurley said. “And then just culturally, a lot of us live in intergenerational homes.” Food insecurity is also a concern; 38% of people in the area are eligible for federal food assistance.

“We struggle with diseases of a modern society that include chronic illnesses such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease,” notes the Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation. These conditions have been linked to higher risk of severe coronavirus cases. And hanging over COVID-19 concerns is the shadow of past health crises: The 1919 flu pandemic killed as much as 40% of the adult population around Bristol Bay.

“The people that are alive now are the children and grandchildren of the orphans who survived,” Hurley said.

But economic concerns also weigh heavily. For many here, the salmon season represents one of their main employment opportunities. Hurley, who is also a fisherman, says that’s why it was so significant that some communities suggested calling the season off.

“Our people are going to be left with whatever happens this summer,” Hurley said.

Gottschalk said it feels like the region is “being forced into this scary pandemic” ― a situation that might have been avoided if the fishery had closed down.

In this 2009 file photo, fishermen work to remove sockeye salmon from their net in the Egegik district of the Bristol Bay, Alaska, sockeye salmon fishery.
In this 2009 file photo, fishermen work to remove sockeye salmon from their net in the Egegik district of the Bristol Bay, Alaska, sockeye salmon fishery.
Klas Stolpe/AP

Some residents are concerned that the economy is being put first. “For us, it’s lives over money,” said Ralph Andersen, president and CEO of the Bristol Bay Native Association. Tribal organizations have been coordinating with communities around the bay to provide information, develop safety plans and call on the state for help expanding medical capacity and law enforcement.

The state has not said how many positive cases in an individual seafood cannery would be enough to raise the possibility of shutting it down.

“It’s going to depend on a number of factors,” Charles Pelton, from the Department of Public Health emergency programs, education and outreach with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, said on a public conference call on May 29. “Clearly, our number one priority will be the health of the community.” The department did not respond to multiple follow-up requests for clarification.

Around 13,000 people are expected to arrive in the area by mid-June, and relying on individuals or companies to voluntarily follow quarantine and testing instructions seems outlandish, Hurley said. “We were seeing people come straight off the plane, ignoring local quarantine ordinances and going to local grocery stores,” she said.

Larson said that Dillingham’s police force has written a handful of citations for quarantine violations so far. State troopers won’t be enforcing Dillingham’s quarantine requirements, either, Lt. Paul Fussy, the state troopers’ liaison for emergency management, said on the May 29 call.

“As state troopers, we do not enforce local mandates,” he said. “We are encouraging people to self-police with the state mandates.” Starting June 8, the state is paying for three members of the private security firm Denali Universal Services to bolster the six-person police force in Dillingham.

But as more industry workers arrive, knowing who is and isn’t complying with local restrictions will be increasingly difficult ― and, for smaller communities around the bay and its river systems that don’t have their own police, almost impossible.

“We can put into place all kinds of laws and regulations and mandates, but none of them are any good without enforcement,” Andersen said. “The virus doesn’t make exceptions, nor should we.”

Ure, the second-generation fisherman, is preparing for the arrival of several crew members from other parts of Alaska. He said that even though it isn’t currently required in his location, he will make sure they get tested.

“One thing that COVID-19 has shown us over these last couple of months is that one person makes a difference,” he said.

Fisherman Nels Ure writes: "The southernmost district in Bristol bay, Ugashik. This is where the majority of my now decade in the bay has been spent. This is during an early morning set and there is a volcano in the background."
Fisherman Nels Ure writes: "The southernmost district in Bristol bay, Ugashik. This is where the majority of my now decade in the bay has been spent. This is during an early morning set and there is a volcano in the background."
Nels Ure

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