As fish processing companies working in Alaska try to come up with plans that will allow for summer operations in the new world of the coronavirus COVID-19, food production facilities across the U.S. and around the globe are already struggling with the pandemic problem.
Things have not been going well.
Almost everywhere people are working in close quarters to process large volumes of meat or seafood, COVID-19 infections are popping up.
“The coronavirus pandemic has reached the processing plants where thousands of workers typically stand elbow to elbow to do the low-wage work of cutting, deboning and packing the chicken and beef that Americans savor,” the Times reported. “Some plants have offered financial incentives to keep them on the job, but the virus’s swift spread is causing illness among workers and forcing plants to close.”
Substitute “salmon” for “chicken and beef” in that Times story, and it is an apt description for the workplace that has come to be known as the “slime line” in a state where the coronavirus worry is as much about remote villages as it is about factory workers.
Alaska fish processors, most of them Seattle based, have now presented the state and government officials across Alaska with detailed plans they hope will allow operation of a $600 million to $650 million seasonal industry while keeping COVID-19 out of the small, coastal communities the fishing industry overwhelms in the summer.
Whether those plans will be accepted remains an unknown, though Gov. Mike Dunleavy has recognized commercial fishing as an essential industry.
Alaska General Seafoods, a Bristol Bay processor, has promised to screen employees before they are sent to Alaska, isolate them from local residents in the Bay during the fish season, and medevac anyone who gets sick.
Other Bristol Bay processors have made similar pledges. Whether the plans are accepted will depend largely on how much risk the state and local economies are willing to accept to maintain the seasonal economies that support largely rural communities.
The risks are hard to quantify.
Iceland – where the government appears close to getting a reliable, random sample of how widespread the coronavirus – is documenting how insidious the disease. Almost 5 percent of the population is now known to have it.
But only about half those people are suffering symptoms that would reveal to them or others that they are carriers of the coronavirus. This generally tracks with the numbers for the people held aboard the cruise ship Diamond Princess in early March while Japanese authorities struggled with how to handle the infection.
The differences infection rates between Iceland – 5 percent – and the Glacier Princess – 17 percent – illustrate the value of what has been called “social distancing” just as they underline the risk of phantom carriers.
Some essential business are now daily taking the temperatures of workers to try to detect COVID-19 carriers before they join co-workers, but that system is not foolproof. More than 10 percent of people with the disease have no fever, according to Oxford University’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine.
As evidenced by the difference between the infection rate in Iceland and that on the Diamond Princess, where the infected and many of the infected mingled freely and sometimes closely, social distance clearly helps slow the spread of the disease, but how one social distances in an Alaska fish packing plant is unclear.
Iceland is a country with a busy airport that welcomes a lot of travelers and tourists from Europe and the U.S. Alaska is a state with a busy airport that sees a lot of travelers and tourists from the Lower 48 states.
Both Europe and the U.S. are now broadly infected with COVID-19, and though the flow of people through Alaska’s largest airport has slowed, it has not stopped. Given all of this, it would appear near certain that the number of people with COVID-19 is higher than the 235 cases – less than half a percent of the Alaska population – the state Department of Health and Social Services is now knows to be infected.
And it is probable there are at 235 people – more or less – wandering around the state with the virus but unaware they are carriers. (Various other studies would put this number at anything from slightly over a dozen to more than 330, but Iceland has what now appears closest to an accurate random sample.)
If 235 people are wandering around Alaska with the disease not knowing they have it, they could carry it almost anywhere. And though the state has banned non-essential travel, people are still moving around because freight needs to be moved, stores need to be supplied, and families wish to reunite.
The state has also imposed a 14-day quarantine upon those moving around, but how well people abide by the quarantine requirements is unclear, and one study indicated that a small percentage – about 1 percent – could still develop the disease after 14 days.
These uncertainties have put a focus on an as-of-yet uninfected area of the 49th state almost the size of Oklahoma, home to only about 7,500 year-round residents and, in the summer, the site of Alaska’s most valuable salmon fishery. This is Bristol Bay, and it has become the focal point for pandemic discussions given the pending, late spring invasion of the estimated 15,000 commercial fishermen and processing plant workers necessary to prosecute the fishing season.
Far less attention has been paid the state’s second-largest fishery in Prince William Sound east of Anchorage, possibly in part because two communities on the Bay are connected by road to Alaska urban centers already infected with the coronavirus.
It commissioned a 14-page report produced by Bothell, Wash., based HealthForce Partners that pledges Trident will screen all employees, increase disinfection efforts in company plants, report any sick employees to HealthForce and government public health officials, and isolate anyone with a “fever, cough, and/or shortness of breath.”
Other processors have made similar offers of protection for local communities and fish-processing employees around the state. The plans are still under review.
Will they come?
Unknown is whether the processors will be able to find enough workers to fully staff their plants if the state and local governments do go along with the operating plans. Staffing has been a problem in the past.
Even before the pandemic, salmon processors were having trouble finding enough of them, and now some Bay residents and other Alaskans have expressed the view they don’t want nonresidents coming at all.
The issue has divided neighbors in the Bay as it has divided neighbors across the country with some worrying primarily that a friend or loved one might die and others fearing an economic collapse that could mean hardship for everyone.
Some believe any Alaska problems with the coronavirus can be solved by keeping fishermen on their boats and processing workers locked up in what sound a little like internment camps when they are not at work. Others doubt that is possible.
Less attention has been given to who would want the jobs under the lockdown conditions and where these workers might be found.
Three years ago, Brian Gannon, a seafood processing plant recruiter for more than 20 years, told a reporter for The New Food Economy it was becoming almost impossible to attract American workers. He blamed government labor restrictions and young America’s reduced appetite for manual labor.
As a result, the industry has been forced to bring in a lot of foreign workers. International travel is problematic at the moment, and the U.S. food-processing industry is attracting nothing but bad PR.
“How many more have to fight for their life, how many more families got to suffer before they realize we are more important than their production?” 36-year-old Tanisha Isom, a $12.95-per-hour deboner at a Tyson plant told the Times.
“‘Our work conditions are out of control. We literally work shoulder to shoulder daily,’ she said, adding that two people she works closely with are currently fighting for their lives.
“Gary Mickelson, a spokesman for Tyson Foods, said the company was taking the temperature of workers before they entered and had implemented social distancing measures, such as installing dividers between workstations and slowing production lines to widen the space between workers on the production floor.”
The situation in South America is such that SalmonChile, a salmon industry trade group, has promised to raise $2.4 million to fund efforts to battle the coronavirus.
“The fund is part of the industry’s ‘Commitment to the South’ program, created to care for the health of employees in the industry, neighbors and communities following the coronavirus outbreak,” the IntraFish website reported this week.
Most of the workers there are local residents, not seasonal migrants.
The action comes at a time when most Chilean processing plants are running at 50 percent capacity in efforts to increase so-called “social distancing” between workers to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Chilean processors, which handle a steady stream of farmed fish, are in a better position to make such accommodations than Alaska processors, who must deal with a 60-day glut of fish that must be processed quickly to prevent spoilage.
Farmers can keep their salmon finning around in pens until a processing plant is ready to accept them. Commercial fishermen deliver whenever they fill their boat.
The 2019 harvest of 43 million – which came in 46 percent above the forecast – was the fourth largest in state history and returned a record $306.5 million to fishermen, according to the state agency.
It was worth almost $26 million more than the 2018 catch which was so profitable the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis ranked the Bristol Bay Borough the fourth richest county in the country even though much of the value of the salmon catch goes south with nonresident fishermen.
Before the pandemic began, Bay fishermen were looking at another banner year. Now no one knows what could happen.
It is possible, depending on how the still developing pandemic unfolds in Alaska, that the fishery will be closed. It would appear more likely that processors – which were having their own problems before the pandemic began – operate at something less than full capacity.
That in and of itself could significantly reduce the harvest. Processors aren’t going to buy more fish than they can process. They have in the past imposed their own limits on fishermen.
Meanwhile, prices for sockeye salmon – the Bay’s money fish – are expected to be lower for a variety of reasons, starting with the fact processors bought too many sockeye at too high a price last year and were paying to store a lot of them in freezers until pandemic fear fueled a run on foods of all sorts. Hoarding subsequently emptied supermarkets of many edibles.
Now, however, salon markets are in chaos. When the pandemic forced closure of restaurants to reduce close contact between Americans, salmon farmers – who produce about 75 percent of the salmon eaten in the world today – began moving more of their product into retail operations where the fish compete with frozen Alaska wild salmon.
Meanwhile, supply chains to China – where a lot of Alaska salmon is now shipped after being headed and gutted in a state – were disrupted, and the fishing industry remains burdened with tariffs that were part of a heated U.S.-China trade war before the arrival of COVID-19 literally took over the news.
Only months ago, the trade war seemed the biggest problem for the Alaska fishing industry, and now it seems the least of the worries.