Bristol Bay Commercial Salmon Season Could Be on Hold for 2020

The vast majority of the 7,500 Bristol Bay region residents are Alaska Natives — and most rely heavily on employment and subsistence from this fishery. But many villages insist the threat of a Coronavirus outbreak is not worth the risk of welcoming thousands of fishermen to Bristol Bay shores. Time will tell how the decision falls.    

The fate of the $278 million Bristol Bay commercial salmon season remains precarious amid COVID-19. Operations may remain halted, as Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation (BBAHC) opposes its re-opening to protect the 28 villages it serves from a Coronavirus outbreak. 

The annual commercial salmon season serves as a financial lifeline for many of the thousands of people who flock to these shores each year. An estimated 13,500 workers depend on this natural and economic resource, including local Alaska Natives, for subsistence and money. 

With no reported cases of COVID-19 so far in the Bristol Bay area, the BBAHC fears an influx of commercial fishermen from around the world — and its potentially devastating impact on the rural area. The vast majority of the 7,500 Bristol Bay region residents are Alaska Natives — and most rely heavily on employment and subsistence from this fishery. Harvesting Bristol Bay wild salmon sustains their economy in a region with limited employment opportunities.

“Historically, we’ve been able to accommodate and care for the influx of visitors and their related fractures and other injuries typical of the fishing season,” said BBAHC President and CEO Robert J. Clark in an April 23 press release. “However, if COVID-19 comes to our region, even the handling of our summer injuries may be next to impossible. We are genuinely concerned about our capabilities to absorb several hundred potential COVID-19 cases.”

A Change.org petition with more than 2,700 signatures asks Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavey to figure out a way to keep the commercial fishing season at Bristol Bay open because it is “Alaska’s number one employer.”

According to a study done for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, the Bristol Bay commercial fishing season provides an average of 5,100 full-time jobs and generated some $235 million in labor income in 2018.

“The Bristol Bay Salmon fishery is an employer of thousands of hard working Alaskans and Americans as fishermen, fish processors, guides, pilots, taxi drivers, mechanics, store keepers and other support workers,” reads the petition. “Most who are very dependent on these seasonal jobs. Many villages in this Alaska region have extremely limited economic opportunities. Residents heavily rely on employment and subsistence from this fishery.”

While no decision has been made on if the season will remain open, Dunleavy issued Health Mandate 017 on April 23, addressing protective measures for commercial fishing vessels. 

The mandate includes crew member screenings, 14-day self-quarantines upon arrival to Alaska, the wearing of cloth face coverings, and having to carry documentation identifying they are essential workers. It also includes language about limiting interactions with on-shore residents and workers.

Extremely Limited Medical Resources 

But is that enough? The Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation only has one area hospital, the Kanakanak Community Health Clinic, with 16 beds. According to a report by Alaska Public Media, only 12 of those beds can be used for individuals requiring more oxygen, and the hospital has just one ventilator.

“We’ve had ventilator filters on order for weeks. We’ve had ventilators on order for weeks. There’s not much supply,” Dr. Cathy Hyndman, the clinical director of BBAHC, told APM.

“We are living in a rural area, supplies are dependent on availability and weather for shipments. Miscalculation of needed supplies may leave us several days without necessary protective equipment. We are working daily to keep supplies in stock for our current population and still have not maintained adequate numbers. Our ability to perform COVID-19 testing is limited. We are under-resourced and our own Tribal members do not have easy access to testing,” Clark continued in the Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation release. “Furthermore, if our providers get sick, who will care for our region?”

Closing the commercial salmon season in Bristol Bay would lead to a hard economic loss for residents and thousands of fishermen who head to this region yearly. The ASMI study reported the salmon harvest in Bristol Bay has been record-setting with production about 40 percent higher than the 20-year average in 2017 and 2018. “Bristol Bay accounted for 38 percent of Alaska’s salmon harvests. The region typically accounts for 42 percent of the world’s sockeye harvest, and is the largest wild sockeye salmon run in the world.”

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