The science of sustainable seafood, explained

Will salmon season happen this year? An interview with Norm Van Vactor

COVID-19 poses a unique challenge for Alaskan salmon fisheries this summer as thousands of seasonal workers descend on small communities in order to harvest, process and ship the catch. Those communities are poorly equipped to deal with infections amongst local residents, let alone a seasonal population ten times the size. Even if health risks were mitigated, Bristol Bay and all of Alaska’s summer fisheries will not have an active foodservice sector to buy their catch this season, meaning low prices to the boat.

The debate between economic costs versus health costs has evolved as the pandemic has worsened; few pundits are still criticizing social distancing and industry shutdowns in favor of spreading the virus further to boost economies. But just as Alaska is a greater health risk to COVID-19, it is also a place of heightened economic vulnerability. Summer tourism is key for Bristol Bay and much of the state—that industry looks to be completely shut down for the foreseeable future. With those losses, plus the potential shutdown of the salmon season, what will happen to locals and fishing industry stakeholders?

Last week city officials in Dillingham, AK requested the state consider closing the Bristol Bay salmon fishery for the year. One day later Trident Seafoods, Ocean Beauty and other seafood processors outlined their plans to safely continue with salmon fishing operations.

To get a local perspective and understand how Bristol Bay fishermen are approaching the COVID-19 threat, we spoke with Norman Van Vactor, CEO of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation (BBEDC), on April 3rd.

Is the Bristol Bay salmon fishery going to happen this year?

I really don’t know. I think the assumption to say it is going to happen is premature. The first salmon fishery of the year will be in Copper River. It’s the first big one that always gets a lot of attention. It will be interesting to see how that plays out. There is a lot of local concern there.

(As of this post, preparations in Cordova, AK are moving forward for the Copper River season.)

Cordova and that area, as far as we know, is virus free. Do we take the risk of bringing the virus into those communities around Cordova. Is that risk worth it? Then that gets into the liability question. When you knowingly, with all the warnings out there, knowingly contribute to a problem, it is no longer just negligence. I think first and foremost one should morally and ethically put health and public safety first and then the economic question second. But quite frankly I think both of those questions will be front and center for anybody that participates in these early fisheries with so many unknowns.

What measures is the BBEDC recommending for the salmon fishery to have a chance to safely operate this season?

First and foremost, as a region we have decided we are going to require mandatory COVID-19 testing both pre-arrival and post arrival. With what’s available for testing today, that would actually mean there’s no fishery. We’re banking on the fact that we hope to get COVID-19 testing available.

Our region last night published a policy position statement to answer that question. What we’re recommending for this region is that it has to be multiple pieces of protocol together. It’s just not quarantines, it’s just not testing, it’s both, and also in conjunction with follow-ups, with changing behavior, with changing the way seafood processors interact on a slime line – maybe you have separation barriers between work positions. All those kinds of things. So yes, we have our work cut out for us to pull this one off this year.

It is important to remember that locally our groups have no legislative authority, we have no code writing, penalty or fine gathering authority. We are a loose knit group of large organizations that represent community interests. In our plan we’re asking our fishermen and processors to get together. Only together, with fishermen processors and community groups hand-in-hand, can we have a shot at pulling this off. We absolutely need to be working together on this.

Where is the biggest challenge in mitigating risk?

I see the biggest challenge being with the fleet. Companies have the authority with their employees to be able to institute very stringent processes, protocols and procedures, and as an organization have the capacity to develop very specific plans, provide quarantine options, isolation options, and heaven forbid medevac options. It becomes much more difficult when we talk about the 1,600 small business operators in Bristol Bay that are fishermen, drifters and set netters. They are independents, and upon arrival drift fishermen specifically will need to get their vessels ready. At minimum it will take 2 weeks to prepare the vessel and the gear to go in the water. Crew sizes are 2 to 5 people, and if you’ve ever seen a forecastle of a 32 footer with 4 or 5 people jammed in there head to toe or head to head, its comparable to a sardine can.

For the next 6 weeks these crews will be living in these cramped quarters, and it will be damp, wet and cold. There’s no such thing as 6 foot separation – maybe 6 inch separation. It’s a tough combination. Even before they launch they will be living in boat yards that will be – even under normal conditions – dealing with difficult sanitation situations with public bathrooms and showers.

We’re not naïve enough to think that sooner or later this virus won’t get out here. Without testing, maybe it’s here already, we don’t know. But what we do know is that we need to have in place the only barrier or defense mechanism that seems to be out there at this point and that is social distancing. That’s creating this artificial wall of isolation that we all hope and pray is a short-term fix as we wait for a longer-term solution.

What happens if infections are detected before or during the season?

We’re asking fishermen and processors to work together on those preparations. They are in charge of developing a plan, developing medical protocol, determining what happens in the event of a fishermen needing to go into quarantine – what will happen then and how can they make sure that there are rooms available.  If it looks like a positive diagnosis, they must then have a medevac system in place to get that person out and to a medical facility.

I’m here in Dillingham where there is a small regional hospital. They have a total of three isolation beds. They have, as of yesterday, one ventilator, and it was currently being used for a non-COVID-19 patient. As of today, if you need a ventilator, there is not one available in Bristol Bay. In Naknek and King Salmon where 80% of the production facilities in Bristol Bay are located, they have a two-bed clinic and from what I’ve heard, they are not isolation beds. And again, that’s a clinic, a great clinic with great doctors, but really they are there for the small local community that is already there. Its more than fair to say we do not have the medical capacity by any stretch of the imagination, to deal with this influx of 12,000 to 15,000 people that are planning to roll into Bristol Bay starting the first of May.

How are local residents weighing the economic risks of closing the salmon season versus the potential health risks of opening the season?

I can’t speak for the local community, but I can at least offer my perspective. First and foremost, life here is all about the Bristol Bay salmon fishery. But you know what, we’ve been so blessed over the past decade in particular with some absolutely incredible runs, record setting run after record setting run. I personally came to Alaska in 1975, and ‘75 was actually not a very good salmon year, and a couple of the years proceeding ‘75 weren’t very good years either. For economic reasons, you might as well have not opened the fishery in those years. Bristol Bay and its people have seen good years, and we’ve seen horrible years. To not have a Bristol Bay salmon season in 2020 would be a horrible economic burden. But would we trade the health and safety of our communities for a better economic season? Of course not. It’s a no brainer its non-starter.

Normally I travel a lot for work. As I get on our local commuter flight from Anchorage to Dillingham, I recognize all my friends on that airplane, and I can speculate that up to 50% of the folks on that flight are going into Anchorage for medical care. Even with having a hospital here in town, all they usually do is very primary and emergency visits. Sometimes even a broken arm, you’re off to Anchorage. What I mean to say is we have an awful lot of folks out here with underlying medical conditions. You go into most of the homes in the villages around us and they are multi generation dwellings, with great grandparents all the way down to grandkids, in that home. As we hear what is happening in Italy and other places, I see an awful lot of similarities. So, when COVID-19 gets out here, I hope like hell that we can jump on it and contain and isolate it very, very quickly. That’s our only hope otherwise this virus has the potential to be catastrophic for the vulnerable ones in our community

In my normal world I’m not an alarmist, I’m a very positive person!

Operational adjustments could limit the potential spread of this virus into Bristol Bay communities. Processing fish at sea, limiting the number of participants in the fishery, and moving boat yards and operations to isolated facilities are all being considered. But with the foodservice sector absent from the market this year, there is also some concern that prices will be too low to justify a fishery in the first place. Given lower prices and much higher health risks, perhaps the return on investment will dissuade some fishermen from participating if the 2020 salmon season opens.

After speaking with Van Vactor and reading the requests from Bristol Bay city officials to close the salmon season, it is clear that most stakeholders believe in COVID-19 safety first. Alaska’s fishing communities have seen financially disastrous salmon seasons before and they surely will again, with or without a pandemic. But they have not seen a health threat like this in 100 years. Sustainable salmon fisheries cannot exist without first sustaining Alaska’s fishing communities.

Jack Cheney

Jack Cheney

Jack has sourced, sold, cooked, and sustainably certified seafood over the past 9 years. In addition to his contributions to Sustainable Fisheries UW, he is working to connect chefs with US fishermen to create more value for both ends of the supply chain. He earned a Master's in Marine Affairs from the University of Washington in 2015.

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