In Bristol Bay a rising concern among tribes that fish processors’ quarantine plans aren’t enough

The in-river opener on the Naknek River. July 18, 2019. (SAGE SMILEY/KDLG)

The Naknek Native Village Council is the latest Bristol Bay group to urge the governor to put extreme protective measures in place immediately or consider closing the world’s most valuable and productive salmon fishery.

In a letter released Tuesday, the tribe echoed requests made this week by Dillingham’s city and tribal councils. 

“The Tribal Organizations of Naknek, King Salmon, and South Naknek, consider this pandemic to be of utmost importance. Our people, and our culture are at risk,” it wrote. “We have worked diligently and taken extreme precautionary measures to limit exposure of COVID-19 to our communities and residents.”

The tribe said it is prepared to take more stringent measures.

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The tribe also pointed out that there are no hospital in its community, and extremely limited medical resources and infrastructure. Moving forward with the fishing season goes against all guidance on how to prevent an outbreak, it said.

“There is no way to prevent a potential mass disease situation when processors employ several thousand people, working in close proximity, living in bunk houses, confined to closed campus style operations. We must consider that a potential mass-outbreak would be disastrous,” the letter said.

The Naknek Village Council is expected to make a statement on Friday.

Meanwhile, big processors gearing up to operate in Bristol Bay’s salmon fishery this summer have laid out aspects of their safety protocols that they say will allow them to participate safely in the upcoming season amid the coronavirus pandemic.

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In a letter to the region’s communities this week, they wrote, “We are writing to you to confirm our commitment that we are prioritizing the health and safety of the communities and tribal councils of Bristol Bay.”

The eleven companies operating in the region are North Pacific Seafoods, Alaska General Seafoods, Trident Seafoods, Peter Pan Seafoods, Silver Bay Seafoods, Icicle Seafoods, Ocean Beauty Seafoods, E&E Foods, Leader Creek Fisheries, Deep Sea Fisheries and Copper River Seafoods. An industry task force has set guidelines for participating seafood companies and other stakeholders to use. The processors say that they will incorporate those guidelines into their individual plans.

Seven processors have posted their individual plans on the Bristol Bay Borough’s website, which range widely in their level of detail.

The companies said in their joint letter that all employees will be verbally screened before being given flight information. Workers will also be medically screened at the Anchorage or Seattle airports, and people won’t be allowed in or out of the processor campuses. Employees arriving from other locations must comply with a 14-day quarantine.

The processors also said that each company has the capacity to isolate and care for employees who develop COVID-19 symptoms. 

“We will work closely with Camai Community Health Center to keep employees safely isolated from the community while still ensuring they receive proper medical care,” they wrote.

Employees will be medically screened before the start of each work shift. Processors say they will also try to keep social distancing measures in place as much as possible: they’ll stagger coffee and meal breaks, ban group gatherings, and limit the number of plant workers that do necessary business with the local community.

They note that their list of precautions is not definitive. Plans will continue to evolve as the situation changes, and through discussion with communities and tribal councils, the companies write. 

Curyung Tribal Council Second Chief Gayla Hoseth says that the processors’ plans don’t adequately address how they would handle a case given the lack of health care resources in the community. 

“And that needs to be shown to all the communities before they even come into the area, of what their plan of action is going to be if somebody gets sick. And where are they going to receive their health care, and what is going to be the plan for health care for them?” she said.

In a press conference this week, Dunleavy said that the state has a team working to determine whether a fishing season could take place this year. He said that the team was working with local officials, tribal leaders, fishermen and processors.

As of Thursday evening no cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the region.