Continuing our coverage of the challenges surrounding the upcoming salmon season in Bristol Bay, Alaska, we spoke with Andy Wink, Executive Director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association (BBRSDA).
On April 8th the BBRSDA drafted a document for best practices, recommendations and protocols for mitigating COVID-19 exposure in the salmon fishery. Wink spoke to us about those plans and how he hoped they would overlap with Health Mandate #17, which was released a few hours after our phone call on April 23rd.
Wink echoed many of the same challenges articulated by Norm Van Vactor back on April 3rd. Health care capacity will be a major limitation for Bristol Bay communities even without the massive influx of seasonal fishermen and processing labor. The BBRSDA and its members only want to fish if doing so will not increase COVID-19 health risks in Bristol Bay.
But Wink did express optimism for the prospect of a safe salmon fishery in 2020. Now at the start of May, there seems to be more positive momentum moving towards an open salmon season in Bristol Bay.
How confident are you that the season will happen this year for BB sockeye, and how is the BBRSDA preparing?
I’m very confident that we’ll have a season, I know the state has said that they will be coming out with a state mandate for commercial fisheries, specifically for independent commercial fishing vessels, tonight at 5pm AK time.
Here is a summary of the health mandate he referred to, released on April 24th.
We’ll know a lot more then, and leadership from the industry has been involved in helping shape what sort of safety measures need to be taken within commercial fisheries, so I have a pretty good idea of what those requirements and recommendations are going to look like. That really kind of sets the stage to put safety measures in place to have a season.
Back when we first started planning around March 21st we didn’t know whether it was going to be possible to have a fishery. But if there is a way to have a fishery and protect public health, communities, and industry workers, what would that look like? What are the best practices? These questions created the requirements and recommendations you saw from the BBRSDA.
The BBRSDA released these recommendations on April 8th, which overlap with most of the state requirements released on the 24th.
Since then the BBRSDA board has adopted a statement of support for the idea of testing and quarantine in advance of arrival into Bristol Bay. We want to get healthy people into the bay, we want to keep them separate from the community, because we realize that even seemingly healthy people can be carrying this virus. Then we want to get them in the water and get them out fishing, and have a plan that if people do start getting sick, we do not overload the local medical facilities. I think there’s a lot of pieces coming together with this. Not all the protocols that we have suggested are going to be requirements, but there are things in place to keep with that strategy.
Medical capacity is a key concern. There’s just not a lot of medical capacity in Bristol Bay because there is a relatively small year-round population here. But we have been assured by the state that they will offer support and make resources available. For the BBRSDA, we are going to be rolling out an offer for discounted medevac membership, essentially medevac coverage, so that if you have to be airlifted out, you won’t have any out-of-pocket expenses. It’s a very reasonable cost, people can get medevacked and they can also have access to telemedicine, which can be really important if you have a crew member that gets sick or is showing symptoms, you can speak to a doctor about it. That could cost from less than $120 for the entire household per season, available to any Bristol Bay fisherman. We think it’s a no-brainer. We can’t require medevac insurance but it is strongly recommended, we feel like everybody should have it this year.
Which protocols should be requirements, in your opinion?
We are operating out of an abundance of caution, so there’s nothing that is coming out that we haven’t already mapped in our preparations. It’s not really my place to pass judgement on that, but the state of Alaska has managed to flatten the curve so far. Yes, it’s a small population, but not the smallest. Alaskans are doing an excellent job curtailing this virus.
The April 24th state mandates for fisheries will be more restrictive and provide a lot more guidance on what to prioritize.
When it comes to quarantine and that sort of thing, it’s going to come down to compliance. That is a mix of enforcement and communication.
What specific recommendations would go into effect if there is a spike in infections in this fishery?
I know a lot of the processor’s plans have protocols for isolating employees who get sick and show symptoms, and we’re probably going to be looking at some kind of formal log and screening documentation for the fleet, and I think a lot of processors will do that as well – making sure we’re taking temperatures, making sure people are healthy each day. Obviously if you’re a processing plant you don’t want to have one worker infect three, infect twelve, and then so on.
So there are isolation components of the processor’s plans, but we expect to see supplemental medical personnel in BB this year too. That’s almost a given. It’s just a question of, is that a floating ship, is that the army national guard, is that some medical contracting company, maybe telemedicine? Is it the processing companies bringing in more medical staff? I’ve heard just about all the companies plan to bring in at least one person to be an RN or nurse practitioner, to be there and able to handle checking people out. If that’s enough for them and for the fleet, we’ll see.
But we’re definitely going to see supplemental medical care capacity in Bristol Bay and then like I said having the airlift there for the serious cases is huge, and we’re very hopeful that it will provide enough capacity for whatever happens. We hope no one gets sick and it ends up being a bunch of money spent but not used, that would be fantastic.
What is the opinion of Bristol Bay fishermen and other stakeholders you deal with about whether or not to operate the fishery this year?
Most of the fishermen I’ve talked to – I can’t even think of any that felt otherwise – believe that if we can’t operate this fishery without jeopardizing public health, then we shouldn’t fish this year. That was the general sense that I got, and is the message that we are going to be bringing to our fleet. Again, we cannot require them to fish or not fish, but everything we’ve heard from folks involved is that if you’re not interested in following these guidelines or safety measures, then you probably shouldn’t go fishing this year. Or if you’re at risk, if you have a pre-existing condition or are immune compromised in some way – we have some elderly fishermen – that must factor into the decision. There are some unemployment programs available that we mention on our website under our economic relief document. It’s a decision every fishermen is going to have to make for themselves.
How much of a factor will the success of Copper River and some of these earlier fisheries have on the decisions for BB?
We’ve heard from the commissioner of Fish and Game that they are looking to Copper River as a first step situation where they can see how these things play out, learn from and build on those experiences. Whether that means closing fisheries or opening them back up to normal operations, I don’t know if that’s going be the takeaway. But officials are for sure looking at Copper River as a learning point for salmon fisheries around the state.
Are there increased costs this year (medevac insurance, operational changes, etc) that are going to exclude some boats from fishing this year?
I think there is going to be new costs, but I’m not sure it will be as significant on the harvesting side as it will be on the processing side. Some of the processor’s plans require more cost, but I also don’t feel that it is a prohibitively high cost, given the value of this fishery and given the revenue that a lot of boats and processing companies bring in each year. If it was uneconomical it wouldn’t make sense to even try to fish. There might be a few boats here and there that fall into that bucket but I kind of doubt it, at least as far as the mandates we have in place right now. I know some fishermen that are voluntarily quarantining in Anchorage prior to coming to the Bay, which is not cheap to stay at a hotel for 2 weeks. It’s cheaper than usual I’m sure because so few tourists, but it’s still an extra cost.
These boats bring in quite a bit of revenue, and when you measure expected revenue versus what it costs to follow these requirements and recommendations, I don’t foresee that part of it keeping a lot of people away. I think the people that decide not to go will probably do so out of not wanting to add to the health risk for themselves. They might just not want to take on that personal risk.
It is a remote area and if an emergency happens you’re out on the water, not right down the road from a hospital. The BBRSDA is doing everything we can to make sure there is as much emergency response capacity as possible, we want to make sure everyone in the community and the industry is taken care of. But it is still an important consideration that could cause some not to fish this year.
Are there any social distancing type measures for processing or fishing that should be recommended?
We don’t advise processors about how to run their operations. For the fishing side of it – you’re on a 32-foot boat. Social distancing is not practical, it’s not possible to do that. There are steps you can take as far as how your serve food, how you clean things, and that sort of thing, so that can be part of a mitigation strategy and that will be in the documentation the state will be coming out with, but really on a boat it’s kind of like a household unit under stay-at-home orders. You’re going to have contact with the people in your household, it’s just how much contact you have with all the other houses out there.
Are you worried about enforcement of these recommendations?
I think it’s important to have enforcement, and if there are concerns then there should be enough time to address it. Maybe through private contractors, there’s a number of different ways it could be bolstered. I think there’s still time on that, we’ll see.
One idea we’ve floated was to have people voluntarily identify as locals or seasonal fishermen. Maybe have a different color Buff (a popular brand for functional face covering clothing items) for people who are residents and another for fishermen or cannery workers, for example. That idea was not well supported, however. Although I have spoken to a lot of canneries that are providing company buffs for their workers, so we are seeing that on the processing side and we have buffs we’re allocating to all fishermen, but the first idea was to have different buffs for locals and non-locals and that was seen as too divisive. If you’ve undergone 14-day quarantine and came through that phase then perhaps you should be afforded the same liberties to move around the town that others in the community have. And people have been showing up to these communities for a number of weeks already, and most I have seen have abided by all quarantine measures. Just because someone is not a local resident doesn’t mean they haven’t followed the rules.