Alaskan Fishing Towns Get Ready for Salmon Season – And COVID-19

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Alaska’s small fishing towns have been largely spared from the coronavirus outbreak due to their remote geography, but they are now bracing for the possibility of its arrival. An influx of out-of-state commercial fishermen and processing workers is now under way as the summer salmon fishing season begins. 

In the town of Cordova, Alaska, the famed Copper River salmon fishery opened at 0700 hours on Thursday morning. The lucrative catch draws a seasonal workforce numbering in the hundreds, and the influx began weeks ago as processors began gearing up for the season. Cordova has already experienced its first COVID-19 case among the new arrivals: A processing worker for Ocean Beauty Seafoods tested negative before leaving Seattle, then tested positive without developing symptoms – a hallmark of COVID-19 epidemiology. The individual had already entered self-quarantine before testing positive, and the number of residents who could have come into contact is believed to be low. So far, it has been the town’s only case.

Remote fishing towns like Cordova or Dillingham lack the medical staff and facilities to address a large COVID-19 outbreak. The fishery workforce typically lives and works in close quarters, raising the risk of accelerated community spread in the event that the novel coronavirus should arrive. An outbreak in one of the canneries “would be pretty catastrophic,” one processing factory manager told the New York Times. 

In order to reduce the potential for the introduction of COVID-19 into remote towns, the state of Alaska has enacted new control measures – including a 14-day individual self-quarantine for arriving workers and crewmembers, either on board (with a Lima flag hoisted) or on shore. For independent fishing vessels, the state requires the captain to certify that the crew is in compliance with public health requirements before completing the sale of his or her catch. 

In Cordova, the city council has gone one step further and designated the entire harbor as a “hot zone.” Within the harbor, the city expects that “everyone should assume anyone on the docks might be a carrier of the Covid-19 virus and take appropriate precautions” – including six-foot social distancing, face masks and frequent handwashing. While the state’s rules allow arriving workers to count days spent in quarantine outside of Alaska, the Cordova statute requires them to start the 14-day clock only when they arrive (or, for vessels, the day they begin their inbound voyage). All vessels are required to keep a logbook detailing compliance, and it may be checked by the harbormaster. 

Wrangell, a fishing town in Southeast Alaska, attempted to institute strict public health restrictions comparable to those in use in Cordova. However, the state denied its request to employ local authority: Wrangell has a large medical facility classified as a “critical access hospital,” making the town ineligible to implement controls on travel in and out.