This year, concerns about COVID-19 are hanging over the Bristol Bay fishing season. Along with the millions of reds returning to spawn in the streams and lakes around the region, thousands of commercial fishermen, processors and cannery workers are starting to arrive in the region.
In any normal spring, Dillingham’s boat harbor would be starting to stir with activity. Fishermen from around the world come to Bristol Bay’s hub town to get boats ready — making repairs and mending nets.
The short fishing season normally runs through June and July. During that time, Bristol Bay’s population of around 7,000 people, scattered across small communities around the region, more than doubles in size with seasonal workers.
But this year, of course, things are different. Thomas Tilden is the first chief of the Curyung Tribal Council in Dillingham.
"I'm also a fisherman. That's my livelihood," Tilden said. "But you know, when I look at the overall picture, I could sit out a season, if I have to. To me, my life is more important than being able to fish."
The state has yet to enact a comprehensive set of safety measures for the fishery, and frustration is building among the local communities. The tribe and Dillingham’s city council asked Governor Mike Dunleavy in early April to consider closing the fishery — something that would have been unthinkable two months ago. Several tribes have joined Dillingham, urging Dunleavy to take action.
The governor has designated fishermen and processors as “critical infrastructure.” Processors are required to submit plans to the state detailing their health and safety protocols. But there are also concerns about how well social distancing and quarantine enforcement can work with thousands of visitors.
The plans processors have published so far vary widely in their level of detail, and Tilden said many questions remain unanswered.
There is only one hospital in the region. It has 16 beds and no intensive care units. As of Sunday, there were 12 spaces for coronavirus patients. In their letters, local leaders say that an outbreak among the fishing fleet would overwhelm the system.
"The potential for wiping out whole communities is real to us," Tilden said.
Bristol Bay was devastated by the Spanish flu epidemic in 1919. Some historians estimate that 40% of the adult population died from the illness. At that time, Tilden’s family lived to the west of the region, on Nelson Island. His mother and grandmother survived the epidemic, and he said they didn't speak of it often.
"They quietly talked about it, about some of the things they witnessed, and saw, and experienced. I just remember that they — it would get quiet in the room, and it would get quiet a long time afterwards," he said.
But the question of whether or not to open the fishery, and under what parameters, is a divisive one within the fishing community. There are petitions on Change.org calling both for restrictions on out-of-state travel to Bristol Bay, and to keep the fishery open.
Mark Wagner usually set nets off of Pilot Point, southeast of Dillingham. Right now he’s in Washington, near his parents, who are in their nineties.
Wagner has been fishing for twelve years in Bristol Bay, and he says he understands local concerns about the fishery moving forward this summer -- he has friends where he fishes that are in vulnerable groups. But he hopes that residents will consider the financial cost to those who fish; it provides up to three quarters of his income each year.
"There's a lot of us that depend on the huge percentage of our annual income from coming out there for a month — essentially a month," he said. "I and all the other fishermen I've talked to, processors, are really committed to developing protocols that I think six weeks, two months from now, are going to keep the people out there safe.”
Wagner said that if it came down to fishing or applying for disaster relief funds, there's no question about what he'd want to do.
"I would rather fish. I would rather make money working. I don't want to be dependent on a handout to make my season," he said.
Bristol Bay's sockeye salmon fishery is the largest and most valuable in the world. Last year, it clocked in with a preliminary value of more than $306 million — it’s highest ever. This year, the market is much less stable — industry organizations and economists are pointing to shifts in the market for other seafood, like halibut. Companies could focus on products like canned salmon instead of restaurant-grade fillets. But in a market that’s changeable in a normal year, shifting their efforts doesn’t guarantee a profit.
Part of the discussion is also about the region’s ecology. Almost 49 million fish are forecast to return to Bristol Bay’s rivers, lakes and streams this summer. Many fishermen are concerned that if the fishery closes, there will be too many sockeye in the system, and intense competition that means fewer fish will survive.
“The biological concerns are certainly real in the sense that in high density these fish do compete with each other," said Daniel Schindler, a professor at the University of Washington who has studied the river systems of Bristol Bay for decades. "But what’s been lost in the discussion is the reality that that level of competition is not so extreme that it causes a total crash in the population.”
Fewer sockeye caught by fishermen does mean more competition for resources upstream. But Schindler said that the argument about too many fish damaging future runs doesn’t have scientific backing.
“The scientific data to support that story simply are not there. There’s essentially no evidence for that over-escapement effect that causes these population collapses,” he said.
Sediment records from the 17- and 1800s shows that the number of fish returning to the system with no commercial harvest is similar to the total run numbers we see now. Those runs didn’t damage future returns, and Schindler said that indicates that the system was able to sustain those numbers. “Over-escapement,” as biologists refer to it, is an economic issue, not an ecological one, Schindler said. That’s because management goals are set to produce the maximum harvest of fish.
Meanwhile, Bristol Bay’s regional organizations have gathered together to demand a comprehensive set of requirements for people coming to fish and work — if the season goes forward.
Governor Dunleavy says the state has a team working with tribal and local leaders, fishermen and processors to determine whether a fishery is possible this year.
“So a very small area, with just a clinic, a single positive case would actually mobilize possibly us doing Lifemed flights, National Guard flights, to remove those individuals, clustering in hot spots," said Health Commissioner Adam Crum, about protocols for the fishery at a news conference Friday. "We've pre-staged a lot of medical equipment all around fishing, coastal communities, testing machines, these rapid tests, to make sure they have that capacity. Because we understand — sometimes there could be weather delays. We don't want to have a lag in testing.”
Crum added that the state was coordinating an “across-the-board” approach, and that it was considering every option.
Mayors from the region sent a letter to Dunleavy Saturday, requesting a meeting with the governor and saying that they want to provide the highest level of protection possible for the people of Bristol Bay. Current efforts to keep the fishery open, the mayors wrote, seem intent on marginalizing local communities and removing them from the decision-making process.
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