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As state continues fishery preparations, Bristol Bay group calls for help with safety measures

Sam Gardner/KDLG

There is still no consensus between the state, communities, and local entities on what the rules will be for the Bristol Bay fishery. Regional organizations are demanding strict safety measures, saying that if they are not met, the fishery should be closed. The state is moving forward with efforts to create safety plans while keeping the fishery open. 

Bristol Bay’s regional organizations are demanding a comprehensive set of health and safety measures for people coming to fish and work this summer. In a letter to Governor Mike Dunleavy Wednesday, the Bristol Bay Working Group called on the state to set a “program of rigorous enforcement” in place to ensure that people coming into the region were complying with health mandates.

The group also called for pre-testing fisheries workers arriving into the region for COVID-19, and requires a follow-up test to come back negative after the workers arrive.

But the region’s testing capacity is still limited; Kanakanak Hospital in Dillingham has roughly 300 test kits available, while the Camai Clinic in Naknek is working to increase its ability to test. Norm Van Vactor is the CEO of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation and part of the working group. He said local organizations don’t have the resources to protect communities on their own.

“Absolutely it’s the state’s role to step in and make sure that it happens," he said. "We feel very strongly that these implementations need to take place before people even get here. We are advocating for real quarantining outside of the region before people get here. We’re advocating for testing before people travel to get here.” 

The letter also voices concerns about the health and safety of residents during the upcoming commercial fishing season. It points out that the region has only one hospital with 16 beds and no intensive care units. The organizations say that an outbreak among the fishing fleet would overwhelm the system; if the state can’t implement their requirements, the fishery should be closed.

“If the fishery is allowed to go forward without these measures, ignoring the warnings of public health experts and officials and the pleas of  Bristol Bay communities, the consequences will be devastating and generational,” the group wrote.

Van Vactor said the group wrote the letter after more than two weeks of discussions with health care professionals, among others.

“I mean, it’s not a balancing act of health and the economy. We’re talking about health. Because we believe that to have an economy in the future, we have to have a healthy population," he said.

According to Van Vactor, they have yet to receive a direct response from the state.

At a news conference Friday, Health Commissioner Adam Crum said that the state was considering the group’s recommended protocols as it developed safety plans for the fishery this summer.

“One of the things that we’re really looking at is trying to find ways that the fishing fleets can actually do pre-screening in advance, to make sure that when they do come into communities that there is no interaction with the local populace, that they have actually secured housing, living and items like this,” he said.  

Crum also said that every community will be involved in the process as part of the state’s emergency response plan, and that the state will also consider each area’s health system capacity.

As the pandemic unfolds, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is learning from the fisheries that are currently underway in other parts of the state, like black cod and crab. That’s according to Rick Green, the special assistant to Fish and Game’s commissioner.

“We’re going to be learning off of Cook Inlet, as we are already starting to put our resources out and our infrastructure out to manage those fisheries," Green said. "And we intend at this point to continue using everything we’ve learned to see if we can’t operate a safe fishery in Bristol Bay as well.”

Green said that right now, the department is looking to Cordova, which is the earliest salmon fishery in the state and usually kicks off at the beginning of May.

Contact the author at isabelle@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.

Izzy Ross is the news director at KDLG, the NPR member station in Dillingham. She reports, edits, and hosts stories from around the Bristol Bay region, and collaborates with other radio stations across the state.