Bristol Bay groups want state to get tough on incoming fishery workers, including testing for coronavirus before they arrive

The City of Dillingham has a 14-day self-quarantine mandate in place. (Sam Gardner/KDLG)

Bristol Bay organizations want the state to impose tough health and safety measures on people coming to work in the massive summer salmon fishery.

In a letter to Governor Mike Dunleavy Wednesday, the Bristol Bay Working Group called for a “program of rigorous enforcement” to ensure that people coming to the region comply with health mandates.

The group wants fishery workers tested for COVID-19 before and after they arrive, along with a 14-day quarantine.

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That would be a challenge, because the region’s testing capacity is still limited. Kanakanak Hospital in Dillingham has roughly 300 test kits, and 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.”

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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 impose their requirements, they say 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 letter follows 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.

Health Commissioner Adam Crum said at a news conference Friday that the state is considering the group’s requested protocols as it develops 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.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game is getting a trial run of its coronavirus plan with the black cod and crab fisheries that are underway in other parts of the state.

“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,” said Rick Green, special assistant to the Fish and Game commissioner. “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 the department is now looking to Cordova, which is the earliest salmon fishery in the state and usually kicks off at the beginning of May.