During season’s final trip, all but one of Bering Sea trawl crew tests positive for COVID-19

A fishing boat
The F/T Legacy tied up at North Pacific Fuel’s dock on Captains Bay Road. Twenty-four of the 25 crew members tested positive for COVID-19 at Unalaska’s clinic. (Hope McKenney/KUCB)

While wrapping up their season fishing for Pacific Ocean perch in the Bering Sea, nearly the entire crew of a United States Seafoods trawler tested positive for COVID-19, marking the first cases of the coronavirus for the Seattle-based company.

Two crew members of the trawler Legacy tested positive for the virus Thursday, according to the City of Unalaska, prompting health clinic providers to test the rest of the 25-person crew. When results came back on Friday, 22 others were also positive.

All crew members remain on board the vessel, with the person who tested negative separated from the others, the city said in a statement.

“This is quite a disappointment,” said Dave Wood, chief operating officer of U.S. Seafoods. “To have weathered storms of COVID all year, and to literally have this trip us up on our last day of the last port call of the season . . . It takes the wind out of your sails.”

The 132-foot catcher-processor was last in Unalaska about two weeks ago. A small number of workers left to go home, and a few fresh people joined the crew, Wood said.

“When the boat was in town and picked up those folks awhile back — since then it’s been completely at sea,” said Matt Upton, an attorney who manages vessel operations for the fishing company.

In advance of the summer fishing season in Alaska, seafood companies developed rigorous mitigation plans to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as it swept across the globe.

U.S. Seafoods was no exception. The Seattle-based processor filed a plan with the State of Alaska in March covering all seven of its vessels, according to Mark Fina, a fisheries analyst for the company.

“Each crew member quarantines for 14 days prior to travel,” he said. “Very near the end of the quarantine, they do a COVID-19 test. Then they travel to Dutch Harbor. And then once they’re on the boat, we do twice-daily screenings for the new crew for the first 14 days.”

Those screenings involve a symptom check and a temperature check, Fina added.

Public health officials in Unalaska warn the upcoming winter fishing season will likely cause a surge in COVID-19 cases, as the population of the island doubles from the influx of fisherman and seafood processing workers.

As U.S. Seafoods prepares to bring its fleet back to the Bering Sea in January, the company is thinking about improving ways to keep the virus off their boats.

“We’re definitely trying to talk with other folks and think of what the best practice is, as we learn more about the transmission, and think about if there’s any changes to how we’re approaching screening, or having people on the boat when they’re working,” said attorney Matt Upton. “Those are all things that we’re looking at. Probably the single biggest thing that we’ve been focusing on is just trying to keep the people on our boats safe and the communities that we work with safe. I think besides this incident, we’ve done pretty well this year. But at the same time, we always have to still be vigilant.”

U.S. Seafoods, Unalaska clinic staff, and state health officials are working together to plan next steps for the F/T Legacy, the city said in a press release on Friday evening.