Fishery working groups considering COVID safety recommendations

Apr 20, 2020

The state of Alaska and city of Kenai want to figure out how to avoid these kinds of crowds this July if dip-netting is allowed to proceed.
Credit Redoubt Reporter file photo

State officials say they are working with commercial, sport and personal-use fishery user groups to figure out a way to conduct fishing season in light of COVID-19.

In a press conference Friday, Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum said working groups have been set up to get recommendations on how to keep people safe while still having a fishing season. Crum said there’s a specific group just for coastal communities on the road system.

“There is a group that has actually been started, as well, that (includes) Cook Inlet fisheries trying to figure out this, ‘How are we going to deal with working with coastal communities?’” Crum said. “You know, Homer and Kasilof and Kenai where these boats launch out of to go out for some of those salmon fisheries. And so, yes, that’s an ongoing concern and conversation, talking with the city managers and leadership about those groups.” 

The state already clarified that sport and personal-use fishing is allowed, even if it means traveling between communities. But social distancing must be maintained. Fishermen should get their fuel, groceries, bait and whatever else they need before they leave town. And if fishing from a boat, keep it to the household.

“One of our guidelines on that are to make sure that you’re doing this, at this point in time, with your household members. That’s one of the easiest ways to get around this,” Crum said.

But the state has not issued any guidance on how charter boats might function this season, nor has it addressed notoriously busy fisheries, like sockeye fishing at the Russian River or dip-netting at the mouth of the Kenai and Kasilof rivers.

Crum says there is another group addressing this issue, made up of guides, sport- and personal-use representatives.

“We’ve got members of our health department team and our industry sustainability group talking with them about, what are some of the protocols that we can implement? Other practices, some of these things that we could look towards to make sure that we have some sort of action down there,” Crum said. “We’re going to do this, as the governor’s been saying, in a thoughtful, deliberate way. So I’m just encouraged by the fact that these groups and these business owners have stood up, taken the initiative to put together these meetings, and invited us to the table to talk this out with them.” 

For its part, the city of Kenai is planning ahead for the July dip-net fishery. At a council meeting last week, City Manager Paul Ostrander said the city is upgrading its fee stations at fishery access points. Glass panels, microphones and an external credit card reader will be installed to make sure fee station attendants maintain proper distance from dip-netters.

The city is waiting for direction from the state but Ostrander says, in speaking with the city attorney, Kenai does have the ability to shut down its boat launch and beach access facilities if the city feels the risk is too great.

“We have the ability to limit or restrict access to the beaches and to our dock facility for public health and safety reasons,” Ostrander said. “So if we’re concerned about the ability of folks to maintain social distancing or we’re concerned about their potential impact to residents within our community, we can likely restrict access to the fishery. What exactly that looks like I don’t know yet.”

Ostrander says the city doesn’t start ramping up its dip-net efforts until mid-June and doesn’t need to make a final decision until then.

“Because it’s an intra-state fishery, it’s all Alaskans, it’s not people that are planning to travel long distances to come to that fishery, that shouldn’t be much of a hardship on the participants of the fishery. And that gives us the largest window possible to determine whether or not that fishery can be conducted safely,” he said.

The Kenai Council also approved a resolution last week, encouraging the governor to loosen restrictions on businesses as soon as health conditions allow.