Alaskan Salmon: Do No Harm

Finding a pragmatic middle ground to simultaneously keep people and an economy healthy

Few consumers realize the incredible logistics required to bring wild caught salmon to the dinner table. Every season, huge amounts of supplies, equipment, and people are mobilized to support the industry as thousands of fishermen and process workers descend on small remote Alaskan villages, setting up shop to harvest and process salmon as they return to Alaskan river systems.

The Alaskan salmon industry is an important driver for the Alaska economy and its rural communities. The McDowell Group reports that 58,700 workers (half of them being Alaskan residents) are directly employed in the Alaska seafood industry, generating $1.7BN in annual wages and $5.6BN in economic output to Alaska’s economy. Salmon represents approximately 37% of the seafood value. COVID-19 has put a stick in the spokes of this important industry leaving local residents, fishermen, processors, and governments struggling to find a pragmatic middle ground solution that provides for the safety of Alaskan residents without killing the golden goose.

Salmon don’t carry viruses; people carry viruses. While the origin of COVID-19 is as yet unknown, many coronaviruses have infected humans through an animal vector – most commonly pigs and chickens. The avian flu outbreak in 2006-07 resulted in the destruction of millions of chickens, and the swine flu caused the same for pigs in 2010, each causing disruptions in protein supply chains. Salmon, or any seafood protein, can’t carry the virus for the simple reason that they don’t have lungs. Because fish instead use gills for gas exchange, they don’t have the right kind of tissue for viruses to survive and spread.

With most process workers and nearly 70% of the fishing fleet coming from the lower 48 and foreign countries, these small Alaskan communities have legitimate concerns about what viruses are being brought into their communities and what that could mean for local residents and their small community hospitals, which are generally resource-poor, some lacking ICU beds and ventilators. Their fear is embedded within the local culture of western Alaska. Community elders remember stories of how their parents and grandparents, who were children at the time, suffered when the Spanish flu came to these communities. It is believed that the flu was carried to Alaska by steamships and barges from Seattle and other ports in the fall of 1918. When canning companies arrived in Bristol Bay in 1919 for the salmon season, they found devastation. The canning companies extended generous medical help to the afflicted, built coffins, buried the dead and clothed, fed and housed a multitude of orphans. The Spanish flu spared many of the young but was devastating to adults. Stories are told of finding children by themselves in front of a house where adults in the family lay dead inside. In fact, many family histories were lost and new lineages began with those orphans. No one knows for sure, but estimates by some historians are that as much as 40% of the adult population of Bristol Bay died from the Spanish flu.

Now, a different but still unknown and contagious virus is passing through our population. Fearful of repeating the past, some prominent local western Alaska spokesmen are concerned and are prescribing changes in the industry to mitigate risks of another disaster. Several community mayors have called upon Governor Dunleavy to shut down the fishery for the season. The mayor of Dillingham has said, “We have considered many alternatives and cannot foresee ANY plan that would avoid a significant impact to our communities. There is no way to prevent a potential mass disease situation.” Not all government leaders, including the governor, agree and are seeking solutions that will allow the industry to operate safely. Leaders of the current version of the canning companies are again using their resources and significant logistics capabilities to respond at considerable cost. Jointly developed, these plans include screening before travel to Alaska, ensuring a 14-day quarantine upon arrival, operating as a closed campus to fishermen and local residents, establishing new protocols for in-person medical screening before each shift, staggering breaks and meals and arranging work stations with six-foot intervals, implementing additional sanitation procedures, and establishing isolated care for any employee exhibiting symptoms and emergency extraction protocols. Safety has always been a priority for the industry and now significant expenditures are being made to maintain the standard and extend it to a broader population.

As we are realizing in the economy at large, 100% certainty of safety from COVID-19 implies 100% certainty of economic ruin. That dichotomy is causing leaders of industry and government in Alaska to walk the line between personal and economic health to find a pragmatic approach to provide reasonable safety to workers, fishermen and residents while maintaining an economy that all rely on.