For the Alaska fishing industry, the second largest employer in the 49th state, the coronavirus pandemic shutting down the country brings good news, bad news and hints of an even more difficult future than anyone could have imagined a year ago.
First, the good news.
Data from Nielsen, a retail-market tracking firm, shows sales of frozen, canned and pouched seafood up more than 50 percent through mid-March. The surge is reported to be helping Alaska processors move backlogs of frozen, Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fillets that had been costing them money to keep stored in freezers.
It was a windfall for the Bay’s commercial fishermen who pocketed a record $304 million, But at the end of the season, processors found themselves sitting on 65 percent more salmon than they’d expected with some of the fish of less than prime quality because of unusually hot weather in July.
Some restaurant buyers went looking elsewhere for fish and chose either farmed salmon or Russian wild stocks. But then came the COVID-19 coronavirus to change everything.
Restaurants were ordered closed in many cities as pandemic panic began, and Americans launched a shelf-clearing assault on supermarkets to shore up food supplies for what many feared could be a long period of isolation.
Sales of frozen fish shot up while sales of fresh fish – preferred by many restaurants and picky shoppers – began to fall.
The bad news
With restaurants closed, the Norwegian Seafood Council is now reporting the falling sales of fresh salmon dropped another eight percent last week, but frozen salmon fillet exports went up 17 per cent from the same week a year earlier.
“The Norwegian seafood industry has proven itself agile and adaptable in the face of the current challenges and has turned their production towards more processed products,” the Council’s Paul T. Aandahl told Fish Farmer magazine.
A Norwegian shift into the frozen fish markets is not good for Alaska wild-salmon processors, although the Norwegians have been facing logistics problems in shipping frozen salmon to the U.S. because of cutbacks in air travel.
That should work to the advantage of domestic processors in the short term. But if there is a significant movement by farmers into the retail market for frozen salmon, it could spell problems for Alaska over the long term both in terms of lost market share and lower prices.
Farmed fish already dominate the market in general and set the base price for salmon. More than 75 percent of the salmon consumed around the world today is farmed.
And with the rise of recirculating aquaculture system (RAS) salmon farms on land, the percentage seems almost sure to rise. The RAS farms eliminate concerns about farm waste threatening coastal waterways and can guarantee consumers the fish were raised in clean, filtered water where all they ever ate was government-certified feed.
Alaska, Russia and Japan share the “wild-caught” segment of the slamon market, although almost all the Japanese fish originate from hatcheries and significant numbers of Alaskan and Russian fish are now spawned artificially as well.
If Alaska processors are unable to operate this summer because of COVID-19, or chose not to given the financial problems of some and the potential for financial assistance from the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act signed by President Donald Trump on Friday, they could lose an even bigger share of the frozen market to farmed salmon.
And regaining market share is never easy.
Will they fish?
Thus, the multi-million dollar question these days swirls around the twin totems of “can they” and “will they?”
About a quarter of the state’s 14,000 limited-entry permits are held by non-residents, according to the Alaska Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission. And about 75 percent of the processing workers who come to Alaska to process fish in the summer are foreigners or from the Lower 48 states, according to the Alaska Department of Labor.
Some small communities want those people locked out as America shifts from a land of Sanctuary Cities to Fortress Villages. In Alaska, it seems, the smaller the town the more afraid the residents that any visitor could bring COVID-19 to cause chaos and death.
The state and a number of communities have been working with processors to try to devise a plan to house migrant workers, quarantine them for the now required 14 days, and then keep them isolated from the people in the communities where they are working.
There appear no simple and easy ways to do this. In Chile, salmon processors and their employees’ union have come to agreement on safety standards that include:
- Thorough sanitation of plants, bathrooms and dining rooms and strategic positioning of alcohol gel cleaning station.
- Regular testing of workers for temperature and other signs of illness.
- Changes in lunch schedule to minimize the density of workers in dining areas.
- An hourly change of work clothes.
- And general protocols to try to keep distance between workers.
Those familiar with the slime line in Alaska say some of the Chilean health standards don’t seem practical in places where processing plants are less automated and people often work shoulder to shoulder.
Gunnar Knapp, the retired director of the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Alaska Anchorage and an expert on northern fisheries, said this week that Alaska fisheries face a lot of problems the farmers don’t, starting with the large volume of migrant labor.
Chilean, Norwegian and other fish farmers usually live in small communities near where they work. Farms are run by relatively small staff with a lot of room to spread out. Nearby processing plants are highly automated, which allows people to distance themselves from each other, and also staffed by people from the local area, which minimizes the problem of how to keep a highly infectious disease out of bunkhouses.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy has declared commercial fishing an “essential industry” that will continue to run in the state despite an order that basically locks Alaskans down until April 11, possibly longer; another that requires a 14-day quarantine for anyone arriving in the state from Outside, and a third that closes bars and restaurants.
As a practical matter, Knapp said, what is the skipper of a fishing boat with several crew coming in from Outside going to do? First he has to find a place to house them for 14 days while they serve out their quarantine and then figure out a way to feed them.
Conceivably that could be done on the boat, but that drives up cost and takes a bite out of the skippers work time or another bite out of his (or her) wallet, given the quarantined crew can’t go to the supermarket to buy food or, for that matter, run errands to get gear to get the boat prepped to go to sea.
Either the skipper, if has already completed his quarantine has do that, or he has to hire someone else to do it.
The dream of most fishermen is that these problems will all go away by the time the commercial season opens off the mouth of the Copper River the third week in May and surely by the time other major salmon fisheries start to roll into action in late June.
But that is by no means a given.
Wuhan, China – where COVID-19 is believed to have first popped up – was in a lock down for three months before authorities began to relieve restrictions.
Alaska didn’t start restricting travel and social gatherings until after its first case appeared on March 12. A three-month restriction on gatherings – be they work or play – to try to slow the spread of COVID-19 would push the current lockdown into June.
The state’s tourism season looks to be already largely lost. Guides, lodge owners and others are all reporting large numbers of cancellations. The National Park Service has eliminated the climbing season on Mount Denali, the continent’s tallest peak. And Alaska Airlines, the major carrier into and out of Alaska and a major player in tourist transport, has eliminated about 70 percent of its flights.
That “80 percent” might well be a harbinger of the size of the shrinkage to come for the Alaska tourism season in general.
Whether more of the commercial fishing season will survive the invisible threat now terrifying mankind only time will tell.
CLARIFICATION: This is a revised version of the earlier story that might have been read to suggest Alaska processors were making increased profits off the sale of last summer’s fish due to the pandemic. Demand for frozen salmon has risen since COVID-19 swept the globe, but prices appear to have held steady given a supply surplus.