As the day’s lengthen in the north and Alaska warms toward another season of salmon bounty, the problems stalking the state’s commercial fishing industry seem to be ever growing.
Even before the coronavirus destined to become widely known as COVID-19 became a national crisis, IntraFish, an industry publication, was headlining “The shakeout has begun: Alaska salmon processors struggle to survive.”
The problems were both old – ever-increasing competition from the salmon farmers whose fish now dominate the market – and new – another monster summer run of sockeye salmon that arrived in usually hot weather in Bristol Bay.
Processors ended up paying fishermen high prices for fish that turned out be less than the highest of quality. When the new year began, a lot of those fish were sitting in freezers costing processors money while still awaiting sale.
“There is no doubt that times are tough for many Alaska salmon processors,” wrote IntraFish’s John Fiorillo. “Some executives say the past season was one of the worst in decades and has brought many processors to their knees. Critics blame the current state of affairs on the companies themselves, arguing that they neglected to invest in their plants for decades and now are suffering for it.
“Maruha Nichiro has put Peter Pan on the block. And questions surround the fate of processors such as Ocean Beauty, Cooke-owned Icicle Seafoods and Marubeni-owned North Pacific Seafoods.”
Those who know the Alaska seafood industry well were expecting significant consolidation and reorganization in the industry ever before the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on March 11.
Since then, fears in the U.S. have grown logarithmically, and now….
Only days ago a petition was posted at Change.org lobbying for Gov. Mike Dunleavy to close Bristol Bay to non-Alaskans this season. It rapidly began gaining momentum.
“Corona Virus (sic) can decimate Alaska Villages like South Naknek, Naknek, King Salmon and other Bristol Bay villages by those arriving from out of state for the 2020 commercial fishing season,” it said. “An estimated 15,000 out of state people are currently trickling into King Salmon….
“There are no adequate facilities to properly quarantine those arriving from out of state and there are no health care facilities that can adequately handle the influx of people that may be infected or those that they infect. The Bristol Bay Borough is not equipped or experienced in a situation like this. Out of state travelers believing they will quarantine themselves in bunkhouses, docked boats and Conex containers are not adequate facilities to quarantine anyone.”
Almost 75 percent of the processing workers who flock to Alaska for the fishing season are foreigners or come from Outside, as Alaskans describe the lower 48, according to the Alaska Department of Labor.
Fifty-four percent of fishermen who holds permits to drift gillnet for sockeye salmon, the big fishery in the Bay, are non-residents as well, according to the state’s Commercial Fishery Entry Commission.
Bristol Bay would be a very different place in the summer without that influx of summer visitors, but many in the Bay are afraid. The almost four dozen comments posted on the petition in the last 48 hours weigh heavily toward legitimate concerns about the elderly.
Around the world, COVID-19 has been waging war on the aged. Eight out of 10 deaths in the U.S. have been people age 65 or older, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
In China more than 80 percent of the dead were over 60, and in Italy, the average age of dead men was 79.5 years and of women 83.7 years, according to The Centre for Evidence Based Medicine at Oxford University.
“I’m signing because I care about my elders in my community, with this virus going around. We have to protect them as much as we can,” Dorothy Bavilla wrote on the petition.
“I’m signing because we are a community that preaches taking care of our elders… let’s practice what we preach,” wrote Mackenzie Macuso.
How Bay residents will make it through the winter sans the cash infusion the fishing season brings to the region is unclear, but there are special reasons to be fearful in the far western corner of the 49th state.
“Filthy and frightened, the three young children staggered up the beach. Their tiny frames were feverish and behind them, on board the small sailboat they had drifted ashore upon, lay the bodies of two dead men,” Richard Gray wrote for the BBC less than two years ago on the 100th anniversary of the Spanish flu pandemic.
“The group had been attempting to flee an outbreak of disease that had devastated their small, isolated village further upstream from the spot where they run aground on the Naknek River in Bristol Bay, Alaska.”
On the way to killing somewhere between 50 and 100 million people worldwide, the Spanish flu of 1918-1919 hit hard at rural Alaska.
Already displaced by the 1912 eruption of the Novarupta Volcano, the biggest natural explosion of the 20th Century, the residents of the village of Savonoski on the Naknek River were almost wiped out by the flu.
“By 1918 or 1919, the remaining Savonoski population, originally
nearly 100, had dropped by half,” University of Oregon anthropologist Don Dumond recorded in a history of the area. “The year 1919 saw the local manifestation of the worldwide influenza pandemic….Thirteen Savonoski people were carried away by the sickness, a fourth of the remaining population. In the U.S. census of 1920 the Savonoski residents numbered only twenty-two.”
“It was a picture that was repeated in villages all across Alaska,” the BBC’s Gray wrote. “In just a few days, nearly 200 people would die from the disease in the Bristol Bay area, leaving dozens of children orphaned….Up to 90 percent of the population died and the mortality rates were some of the highest in the world.”
Some, however, escaped the pandemic, apparently because of their limited contact with outsiders.
“It is strange to relate that Egegik was the only village on Bristol Bay
that was not troubled with the malady, and the Natives there were
apparently just as healthy when we left as they ever were, ” J.F. Heinbockel, the superintendent of Naknek area canneries for the Alaska Packers Association wrote in his records at the time.
Death and more death
The NN Cannery History Project prepared for the Alaska State Museum later recorded the recollections of a Nina Harris, who managed to survive it all.
“We got the flu in 1919 when the cannery crew came in,” she said. A friend of her family died first “and then the next was his wife, then his son, than my husband Johnny, and then my sister-in-law. She died up there, and my brother-in-in-law and I were the only ones that survived in our family. But five days later, he passed away so I survived alone.
“I can remember when they buried mother. They were so short of lumber, and they made the casket so short. I can just picture it today, how they were pushing her in. That is kind of sad, and only three or four people took care of her ’cause the rest were all dead from the flu.”
Some of this history is still remembered around the Bay. It is easy to understand why people would be afraid.
“The flu killed more people in one year than the Black Death
in the Middle Ages killed in a century,” the state history records.
But the fishermen and canneries of Alaska kept plugging along as best they could. “The 1919 Annual Report from the Governor Alaska to the Secretary of the Interior” recorded a catch of more than 58 million salmon in 1919, but that was down 43 million from the year before.
“The number of person engaged in 1919 was 25,499, or 1,003 less than employed in 1918,” it added, which was largely attributable to the fact “influenza has swept through our coastal region likes flames through a forest,” as Territorial Gov. Thomas Riggs put it.
“Whole villages of Eskimos lost their entire adult populations. Many infants were frozen in their dead mothers’ arms. To make matters more gruesome, the half-starving dogs mangled and mutilated the dead and dying.
“The superintendent of education, Mr. Walter Shields, was one of the first to die. Nome’s only physician, Dr. Neuman, was himself early smitten with pneumonia and had two relapses.
“I doubt if similar conditions existed anywhere in the world – the intense cold of the Arctic days, the long distances to be traveled by dog team, the living children huddled against their dead parents already being gnawed by the wolfish dogs,” Riggs wrote.
“Dr. Lamb of Marshall, at my request, hurried to old Hamilton where all the Natives were dying, but he himself caught the disease and died. And no assistance at that time could be procured from any helpful agency. They were all to engrossed in the woes of Europe to note our own wards…dying by swarms in the dark of the northern night.”
Alaska is far better off now than it was then. Airplanes have replaced the dog teams, and regional health centers compliment the major hospitals in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau.
Still, there is a little doubt a major outbreak of a contagious disease among summer employees that more than triple the population of Dillingham, population 2329, Naknek, population 544 ; King Salmon, population 374; and South Naknek, population 79 , could quickly overwhelm the available local medical facilities.