The governor releases a mandate laying out guidelines for commercial fishermen, while Bristol Bay's health corporation opposes opening the fishery this season. Communities continue to prepare for the arrival of fishermen and workers. And a virtual yuraq series kicks off today — we hear from one of the people running the sessions.
Listen to the full show here:
The Bristol Bay fishery will be operating under a strict set of guidelines this season, laid out in the new mandate released Thursday (4/23) 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.
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.
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.
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.
Dillingham Mayor Alice Ruby said her decision to take part in the letter came after discussions with city council members.
"It was pretty clear that the [Dillingham City Council] wanted us to put efforts to the greatest degree possible into trying to assure the safety of our residents. And what I heard from each council member was closing the fishery was by far the way to assure safety," [WEB: she said at a city workshop Monday.]
But that's out of the control of local municipalities. While the municipalities continue to try to work with the governor, Ruby said, the city will focus on mitigating the community’s risk.
"Through the harbor, the police, the permit system, and all of those. And also from trying to influence those mandates from the gov," she said.
Processors are required to submit health and safety plans to the state in order to operate this season. Ruby said the city has not been allowed to participate in the approval process for those plans.
The Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, a group that represents fishermen, now supports COVID-19 testing and quarantine for fishermen prior to their arrival in Bristol Bay for the season. In a statement published Tuesday, President Fritz Johnson said that supporting stringent safety guidelines was important both for the health of communities and the demand for Bristol Bay sockeye.
"A tragedy—particularly one that is aggravated by poor compliance on the part of the fleet in regards to best practices—could significantly damage demand for the fishery’s products," Johnson said.
The association will continue to work with communities to support the highest level of “workable safety protocols” that would ensure a 2020 season, Johnson says.
The Bristol Bay Borough, the City of Dillingham, and the Lake and Peninsula Borough are working with other local leaders to prepare for the fishing season.
Mary Swain, the director of the Camai clinic in Naknek, said in a meeting Tuesday that the clinic was preparing for the upcoming season by hiring more providers and telehealth staff. Processors are encouraged to hire onsite medical professionals for each plant to help monitor any illness. Swain said Camai is also ensuring that processors report cases to the clinic, so that they can track and respond to the progression of COVID-19 in the event of an outbreak.
The Bristol Bay Borough’s Infectious Disease Task Force is part of a statewide fishing committee working to respond to the pandemic. The borough is currently considering a proposal by an Anchorage medical group to provide health and medical services to processors based in the borough. Manager Gregg Brelsford said this would not be exclusive, and that the borough would consider proposals from other medical providers.
Governor Mike Dunleavy said in a teleconference with local leaders last week that the state would aid the Bristol Bay Borough in the face of a potential COVID-19 outbreak by calling on the National Guard, Coast Guard, Air Force and Army to assist with medical evacuation, ferry supplies and personnel. That’s according to an update from the borough. Dunleavy was responding to a question from borough manager Gregg Brelsford, who expressed concern about the 15,000 fishermen and workers expected to arrive for the fishing season.
The Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation is sending five rapid test machines to villages around the region. We checked in with Dr. Cathy Hyndman about what this means for the corporation’s testing capacity.
Staffing remains a problem at Kanakanak Hospital. Dr. Hyndman says they are working to bring in additional support.
Earth Day was this week, so we caught up with Paul Liedberg with the Friends of the Landfill to explore their efforts around town. The committee was formed by Liedberg one year ago to help make improvements at the landfill.
In the group’s first year, they built an electric fence and restricted hours at the salmon fish waste bin to help prevent the presence of bears in the community. They also helped community members clean up a shooting range by Snake Lake.
Last fall, Liedberg says they collaborated with the Curyung Tribe and 20 other volunteers to dispose of some hazardous materials at the landfill.
A series of virtual yuraq dance sessions kicks off today. Atkiq Ilutsik-Snyder talks about how to participate in these sessions and shares a song.
You can find out more about those sessions on the Bristol Bay-am Qasgia/Na qenq'a Facebook page.