Not even the dreaded coronavirus COVID-19 seems able stop the fish wars that have long roiled the waters of Alaska’s Cook Inlet.
Where some today see a pandemic spreading disease, death and economic hardship, commercial fisherman John McCombs sees opportunity.
McCombs, a member of the board of directors of the United Cook Inlet Drifters Associaton (UCIDA), on Thursday petitioned the Alaska Board of Fisheries to “open commercial fishing in Upper Cook Inlet to harvest Russian River sockeyes, on May 15th and 2 (12 hour openings Monday and Fridays).
“Emergency adaptive management because of coronavirus.”
The state’s COVID-19, shelter-in-place lockdown will reduce the sportfishing effort that traditionally harvests the surplus of sockeye salmon returning to the Kenai River’s most fabled, clearwater tributary, and the result will be the sort of dreaded “over-escapement” of spawners the 570 drift gillnet salmon fishing permit holders of the region’s most powerful commercial fishing organization fear.
Scientists have repeatedly dismissed over-escapement, the idea too many fish escaping the nets or hooks of fishermen to reach the spawning grounds as if nature were unshackled by man pose an environmental threat to the fish themselves.
The most recent scientific dismissal of the idea came just this week with fear growing sockeye harvests worth hundreds of millions of dollars in Bristol Bay could be diminished by the pandemic, but over-escapement remains both the bogeyman and political rallying cry for commercial fishermen in the Inlet.
A crystal clear stream that surges out of a pair of lakes high in the Kenai Mountains, the Russian supports an early run of sockeye salmon that has not been fished by commercial fishermen for decades.
A historic sport fishery, it long witnessed an average return of fewer than 50,000 sockeye per year with an average angler harvest of less than 15,000 of those. Runs have, however, strengthened in recent years, and more than 100,000 sockeye swarmed the river last year.
Still, any sustainable level of commercial harvest of those early run fish would be but a fraction of a late-run sockeye catch of 1.85 million Upper Cook Inlet sockeye the Alaska Department of Fish and Game forecasts to be caught this summer if the commercial fishing season proceeds as planned.
Across the state, questions have been raised as to the risks of epidemic outbreaks of COVID-19 in fish processing plants. Chile, where plants work year-round to process farmed salmon, has already seen a cluster of COVID-19 cases, and the same problem has struck meat-packing plants in the Lower 48.
Tourism nationwide has taken even bigger hits due to the lockdowns across the country. One of Alaska’s largest tourism operations, Holland America Line, has already announced it will not operate in the state, and another major – Princess Tours – has steeply scaled back.
With state tourism expected to be a whisper of its normal bustle this summer, the fishing industry is one of the few economic engines the state still holds hopes will start clicking.
The Seattle Times Friday reported that Seattle-based Trident Seafoods, the country’s biggest fishing company, will “try to keep COVID-19 out of Trident’s Alaska processing plants by putting all hires through the hotel quarantines and swab testing, then creating closed facilities where employees are not allowed to venture into nearby towns.”
There remains considerable debate as to how many people get sick from COVID-19 and how many, for whatever reason, are merely carriers. The U.S. Navy Wednesday reported about 60 percent of the more than 600 sailors with COVID-19 found among the 4,800 crew of the U.S. aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt were asymptomatic.
“Sweeping testing of the entire crew of the coronavirus-stricken U.S. aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt may have revealed a clue about the pandemic: The majority of the positive cases so far are among sailors who are asymptomatic,” Reuters reported Thursday, although the numbers are far from surprising.
Similar testing was done of the passengers and crew aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship after it was hit with COVID-19 in February. Of the 3,711 mostly older people on that ship, 634 contracted COVID-19.
Of those, 52 percent were asymptomatic. Similar rates are showing up in samples around the globe; the data also indicates that while the chances of contracting the disease appear similar for people in their teens to those in their 80s, the chances of serious illness and/or death increase dramatically with age.
Death rates for those 39 years old or under range downward from 0.02 percent, about twice the rate for the common flu. For those 40 and older, the races climb from 0.4 percent to 14.8 percent for those 80 or over.
The fear in remote areas of the state believed to be as yet untouched by the disease is that if it gets there large numbers of elders could die. The indications of large numbers of invisible COVID-19 carriers only add to that fear.
Connected to Alaska’s largest city by the Sterling and Seward highways, the Kenai Peninsula is different from rural Alaska. Commerce flows freely between the Peninsula and the state’s urban core as do people.
Some Anchorage metro residents have second homes on the Peninsula, as it is commonly called. COVID-19 infections have already popped up in the biggest cities there. The news director for the Kenai radio station revealed she is among the infected.
The state has banned unnecessary travel between Alaska cities, but created an exception for “essential services” that include “persons engaged in subsistence fishing and in the fishing industry.” It stopped short of granting essential status to hunters, anglers and other outdoor reactionists as Minnesota did.
But the Alaska Department of Fish and Game later sought to clarify the situation by issuing a statement saying hunting and fishing are not fully restricted by the travel prohibition.
Anglers were, however, advised to “totally provision your trip from your community of origin. Don’t plan on buying food, drinks or even fuel (if possible) after you begin your trip and until you return home.
“Practice social distancing while sport or personal use fishing.”
How this would all work once fishing seasons open is unclear. The entrance to the Russian River is about 105 miles south of Anchorage and on the edge of the roadside community of Cooper Landing, which has yet to report a COVID-19 case.
The McCombs petition is premised on the idea that there will either be no sport fishery or – given the expected tourism decline – a fishery so small it won’t come near to catching the expected, harvestable surplus of Russian reds.
The fishery isn’t scheduled to open until June 11. Thus the Board of Fish will have plenty of time to consider the latest questions of how to balance harvests and escapements.
If Fish and Game biologists believe harvest are likely to fall significantly because of economic chaos being caused by the pandemic, the Board does have various options. Instead of opening the commercial fishery, it could increase daily bag limits to up the catch and help provide fresh fish for regional bar, restaurant, health club and other workers who lost their jobs to the closure of non-essential services.