Commercial fishing industry tests COVID plans prior to season

Jun 10, 2020

Credit Redoubt Reporter

With more sockeye salmon showing up in Cook Inlet, the commercial fishing season is due to get underway in the next few weeks. But this season is different for everyone, from processors to set-netters.

The coronavirus pandemic has put extra hurdles in the way for commercial fishing. Many of the processing employees come from out of state each year, as do many deckhands and fishermen. On top of that, most fisheries in the state operate in small communities with limited health care resources. The Kenai Peninsula is no exception.

Robert Ruffner, with the Alaska Salmon Alliance, said the industry has put together a mitigation plan. So far, ihe said, it’s working well at catching cases. State public health nurses have been helpful at making sure the plans are well planned and can contain outbreaks, too, he says.

"Here on the peninsula, the first cases that we had show up, we were pretty prepared for it," he said. "We had testing protocols in place, we knew where we were going to isolate people. Those plans were implemented methodically and they were really well thought-out."

The seafood industry has been the source of the majority of nonresident cases detected in Alaska so far. Processors are aware of this and have stuck to stringent testing and quarantining rules. Because employees live and work in such close proximity in the plants, an outbreak could get out of control quickly and stall a plant. That would stall fishermen, too, as a plant wouldn’t be able to buy fish without workers to process them.

Ruffner said the industry is aware that bringing people to communities does post a risk. Workers are arriving in waves and processors are having them quarantine upon arrival in their facilities and testing them within 48 hours.

As the season goes on, the companies will monitor workers and continue testing as necessary. Ruffner said companies are incurring rising costs for the testing, though, and hope there will be relief available to help cover that cost.

“The seafood processors ... employ the most number of people from out of state and from within state, so they’re racking up some significant costs for testing and quarantine and isolation,” he said.

The most recent out-of-state travel mandates from the state allow people to bypass the 14-day quarantine if they tested negative within three days of traveling or get a test once they arrive in the state, quarantining until the results come back negative. Essential workers, like seafood workers, however, are a little different, as they have to follow a travel and work plan their employers have to file with the state. Captains also have to file an acknowledgment plan with a processor before they can sell any fish, certifying that they know the mandates and have agreed to follow them. Ruffner said these forms can be confusing but that fishermen should keep them in mind as they get ready for the season and should follow the most-stringent testing protocols they can.

“We want everybody to follow the quarantine, number one, and, number two, the most rigorous testing protocols they can," he said. "And the second most important thing is make sure they fill out the correct documentation and get that to the processor before they can sell any fish.”

The fishery in the Northern District of Cook Inlet is open now, while the first commercial fisheries in the central district open later in June.

Reach Elizabeh Earl at eearl@kdll.org.