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Dunleavy mandates strict guidelines for commercial fishermen

Isabelle Ross/KDLG

Governor Mike Dunleavy has released a new health mandate for commercial fishermen. This comes the same day that Bristol Bay’s regional health corporation called for this year’s commercial fishery to be closed.

The Bristol Bay fishery will be operating under a strict set of guidelines this season, laid out in the new mandate released Thursday by Governor Mike Dunleavy. Crew members and captains who want to fish in Bristol Bay will have to wear masks while traveling there, and go immediately to the place where they’ll quarantine for two weeks. Once they arrive, they’ll have to have their temperatures checked twice a day.

Read the plan here

The mandate targets independent fishing boats, many of which are operated by captains and crew who travel to Bristol Bay from outside Alaska. Specifically, it applies to those that have not "agreed to operate under a fleet-wide plan submitted by a company, association or entity" representing them. The new mandate also requires crewmembers to undergo verbal and physical screenings upon arrival — and they can’t have respiratory problems or fever. Crew members are allowed to quarantine onboard, though they’re still allowed to fish as long as they restrict contact with other boats and people on shore as much as possible.

To protect communities, the mandate stipulates that crew can only leave the vessel for essential purposes.

If a fisherman becomes sick, they will be required to isolate themselves. If they are not able to isolate from others on the boat, the entire vessel will be under isolation.

Boats are also required to continuously monitor crewmembers who show signs of illness. If a fisherman is suspected of having COVID-19, they must wear a mask or cloth covering and stay in a private room with a door and separate bathroom facilities, though that may not be available on every boat.

The mandate goes into effect at 8:00 a.m. Friday, and the state will re-evaluate it by May 30.

Dunleavy’s administration has been under increasing pressure to outline safeguards for Bristol Bay as the salmon season approaches. Mayors from the region sent a letter to the governor Saturday, asking for a meeting and saying that they want the highest level of protection possible for residents. Current efforts to keep the fishery open, the mayors wrote, seem intent on marginalizing local communities and removing them from the decision-making process.

The letter was signed by the municipalities of New Stuyahok, Manokotak, Togiak, and the Lake and Peninsula and Bristol Bay boroughs.

In an announcement Thursday, Robert Clark, the chief executive of Bristol Bay’s tribal health organization said it’s priority is serving its 28 member communities. The arrival of several thousand fishermen and seasonal workers will put residents at risk, Clark said.

“We really can’t help people without a lot of extra help. And maybe even then it’s going to be difficult," he said. We’re just under-gunned, under-staffed, under-resourced to meet such a big thing. We’ve been planning daily. We’ve got a team that’s practicing up. I’m real happy with all of that stuff there. But we’re not getting what we’d like to get, and we’re not getting it quickly enough.”

Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation “has not received a commitment from the State of Alaska or the City of Dillingham regarding what additional resources would be provided in the case of an onset of COVID-19,” the announcement reads. “Without a plan of action, BBAHC resources will most likely be strained and overwhelmed.”

BBAHC’s executive committee voted to oppose opening the fishery.

The corporation manages Kanakanak Hospital in Dillingham, which is the region’s only hospital. It is licensed for 16 beds, 12 of which are suitable for people who need additional oxygen. It has no intensive care unit and just one ventilator for emergency use on coronavirus patients.

“We’ve had ventilator filters on order for weeks. We’ve had ventilators on order for weeks. There’s not much supply," said Dr. Cathy Hyndman, the clinical director of BBAHC.

Hyndman said BBAHC has a rapid COVID-19 test machine at the hospital, and the corporation is  sending five more to villages around the region.

As of Thursday evening there were no reported cases of COVID-19 in Bristol Bay.

This report was updated to include that the mandate applies to independent boats that have not agreed to operate under a fleet-wide plan submitted by a company, association, or entity representing them.

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.