Troubled seas-food

blue harvest

New England’s Blue Harvest Fisheries ordered closed/Blue Harvest

A month ago, Blue Harvest Fisheries was touting its state-of-the-art plan to keep the pandemic coronavirus COVID-19 out of its processing plant in Bedford, Mass. 

Thursday the New Bedford Board of Health ordered the company shut down after three employees tested positive for the disease.

The news comes as Alaska fish processors are gearing up for the salmon processing season in the 49th state amid fears an influx of fishermen and processing-plant workers could spark an outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 in a state so far little touched by the disease.

Three days before Blue Harvest was told to cease operations, High Liner Seafoods only 97 miles to the north in Portsmouth, N.H., announced it was temporarily suspending operations because of the disease spreading among its employees.

High Liner reported “that the total number of COVID-19 confirmed cases at their Portsmouth production facility is less than 10,” according to the New Hampshire Union Leader.

A Canadian company, High Liner is reputed to be the largest prepared seafood processing operation in North America with fish processing operations in Nova Scotia, Canada; New Hampshire and Virginia, and a satellite office in California. 

Blue Harvest is a newer, smaller company. Since its 2015 start, it has touted itself as a Safe Quality Food Institute  (SQFI) “Level 3” rated company. The company was proud of the millions it spent installing state-of-the art processing lines in its New Bedford plant. 

The modern-day facility appears to have offered no protection from COVID-19.

“A cease and desist order issued to the company Thursday night states that it has to cease operations until it provides the Board of Health with sworn documentation that it has performed enhanced cleaning and disinfection of its facility – excluding the main office and fresh scallop and fish pack out areas – during its closure, removed all employees with suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19, and has implemented certain other measures to prevent the transmission of COVID-19,” SouthCoast Today reported today. 

Alaska gearing up

Some Alaska fish processing plants run year-round and are already busy processing halibut and, with a few exceptions, other non-salmon species, but the big processing push in the state doesn’t come until June.

Sixty percent of the seafood jobs in Alaska are connected to the summer salmon fisheries, according to the state Department of Labor, and jobs in the state’s second-largest industry peak in July.

Average monthly employment in May 2018, the latest year for which data is available, was near 5,400 jobs, according to Labor records. That number more than tripled in June and went over 23,000 in July.

By September, it was back down to 9,600, and by October there were fewer people employed than in May.

Not counting fishermen and their crews, Labor reports, “the seafood processing industry has had the highest number and percentage of nonresident workers (employed) every year since data collection began.”

The 10-year average shows workers from elsewhere make up just shy of 75 percent of the processing workforce. The state doesn’t have a firm number for commercial fishermen and their crews, who are exempt from reporting employment and wages to the state.

But Laber estimates they compromised “44 percent of the harvesting
workforce” in 2018 and “took in 67.1 percent of gross wages.”

The huge influx of workers converging on Alaska from across the nation and around the world – any of whom could be infected with COVID-19 – has worried many communities, especially the smaller ones which have to date escaped the global pandemic.

Processors have drafted detailed plans on how they plan to keep the virus out of those communities. Sitka-based Silver Bay Seafoods which has operations in that Southeast Alaska city; in the Prince William Sound community of Valdez, in Kodiak, at Naknek on the shores of Bristol Bay, and at False Pass at the eastern ends of the Aleutian Islands, hired a Seattle-based consultancy to help it run a disease prevention and treatment program.

Discovery Health’s 58-page plan for the company calls for quarantining Silver Bay employees near company plants in Alaska, keeping them isolated on Silver Bay property, and evacuating anyone who gets sick.

The plan also outlines in-plant social distancing practices designed to prevent the spread of disease and procedures for eliminating contacts between processing-plant workers and fishermen.

“No captain or crew member shall leave their vessel for any reason
except those required by law,” the plan says. “No captain or crew member shall be allowed to visit the local community for any reason other than to obtain medical services beyond those available at the plant or for reasons approved by local community authorities.”

The plan has drawn some criticism.

Dr. Eliott Bruhl, the chief medical officer for the Southeast Regional Health Consortium wrote a letter to the state calling the plan “naive,” “contradictory to medical reason,” and a potential “catastrophe.”

Bringing 450 workers from Mexico and the Lower 48 to Alaska will require they pass through areas already infected with COVID-19, Bruhl said, and he questioned a Silver Bay plan to quarantine so many people in a bunkhouse for 14 days.

Other salmon processors have drawn up plans similar to that of Silver Bay because there are really no other good options. Rural areas of the state simply lack the manpower to staff processing plants even if the locals wanted the jobs, which many don’t.

Help has to be brought in from somewhere to process the nearly 133 million salmon the Alaska Department of Fish and Game expects to be caught this year. 

Waning epidemic?

The dream of everyone in the state is that the epidemic spread of COVID-19 is waning and the risks of anyone getting infected by the disease will steadily fade as the fishing season approaches.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy this week announced that businesses shut down to prevent the spread of the disease can begin to reopen, and Alaskans are again allowed to leave their homes.

Anyone traveling into the state from Outside will still be required to quarantine for 14 days, according to the governor’s Friday order, but “intrastate travel between communities on the road system is permitted.”

Alaskans are still to maintain 6-feet of separation and cover their faces when meeting in multi-family groups. Gatherings are limited to 20 people or less.

Whether opening up the state will cause the disease to begin spreading more is an unknown. To date, Alaska has been lucky. A University of Washington (UW) model had predicted the epidemic would peak Friday in the state with 15 dead.

To date, according to the state Department of Health and Social Services, only nine people have died, and of the 339 known to be infected 209 have recovered.

The model designed by UW’s Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation now projects the epidemic will have runs its course by early May – though no scientists expect the virus to fully go away – and that the state death toll shouldn’t reach the earlier projected number until August.

At the rate of a two to three deaths per month on average for May, June and July, COVID-19 deaths would be occurring at a lower rate than deaths from the common flu, which on average kills five people per month in Alaska.

And the deaths would be far below accidents which kill, on average, more than 36 people per month, according to Centers for Disease Control data.

The numbers have not, however, tamped down fears everywhere. Some rural villages remain very much afraid.

Clarks Point, a village in Western Alaska, Thursday decreed that “anyone currently not residing in Clarks Point is prohibited to enter the village of Clarks Point. Anyone wanting or needing to enter our village will need Clarks Point Village Council board members’ approval before entering the community. The only persons able to travel per (state) mandate #12 are health professionals and other emergency responders dispatched by the state or federal governments,” officials of the Bristol Bay health cooperative, law enforcement personnel “and pilots delivering freight and mail. This restriction is to anyone trying to travel by air, water or land.”

Clarks Point is a community of about 60 people, most of them Alaska Natives, on the shore of Nushugak Bay about 340 miles southwest of Anchorage. 

The community is only about 15 miles south of the summer-busy Bristol Bay port of Dillingham.  A number of non-resident and non-Bristol Bay fishermen hold setnet permits to fish the area.

“Only Bristol Bay residents are allowed to fish their sites in Clarks Point, AK,” the community policy said. “No one outside of the Bristol Bay region is allowed into the village for fishing or any other activity.”

Community residents have also been told that if they are returning home from anywhere, they need to quarantine for 14 days.

The reason, the notice said is “the pandemic and possible spread of COVID-19….This is to ensure the safety of our elders, children, anyone with a weaken(ed) immune system or anyone with a medical condition, our community in general.”

Other communities had previously asked Dunleavy to keep non-residents out, something the state has so far refused to do. Whether they will follow the actions of Clarks Point and take matters into their own hands is unknown.

Fears are unlikely to diminish amid the continuing closures of seafood, meat and poultry production plants across the country due to COVID-19.

‘Tyson Foods Inc. closed its beef plant in Pasco, Wash.,” Meat + Poultry magazine reported Friday. “The company, which previously shuttered pork plants in Indiana and Iowa this week, did not provide a timeline for reopening the facility.”

The magazine reports more than two dozen meat and poultry plants across the U.S. and Canada have been forced to close since March 31.















19 replies »

  1. Where did you find the Clark’s Point community COVID-19 policy? I am having trouble finding the original source.

  2. Don’t let the lunatics run the asylum. No need to worry about Covid19 the “experts” initially said – no worse then the flu. Absolutely no need to restrict flights from China they said. Go to the movies & eat in Chinatown. Masks won’t help with this virus. We need 40,000 ventilators. We need 60,000 additional hospital beds. There will be over 250,000 Covid 19 deaths and possibly millions. Now the same idiots want to starve us by shutting down our food production! It is way past time for ordinary citizens to start publicly ridiculing these so-called “experts” before they kill us. Put the lunatics back in the asylum.

  3. Bryan, just how many deaths in the Bristol
    Bay fishing communities caused by CV19 would be acceptable to you? Tell us what the estimated number of deaths that would be sufficient in your mind to justify closure of the fisheries.
    Statistically, we know that there are a certain amount of people who get killed each year working in the BB fisheries. We do not close the fisheries because of that risk. Should we look at whether to close the fisheries because of potential CV19 deaths the same way? Should we assume that there will be deaths caused by the virus? What is your bottom line? After all this fishery brings in up to two or three hundred million dollars. Surely we can risk up to, what, say 10 lives lost to this virus. Right? What do you say?

    • Alaskan First – I don’t know, how many deaths from the flu are acceptable in BB?
      Since Corona seems to have a death rate of less than 1%, it is time to get back to business. The flu in America, even with a vaccine, has a death rate of 1%.
      Will Corona spread? Absolutely. It has already spread to millions and has been around awhile. Time to move on. Want to wear a mask and Social distance fine. But to shutdown BB or the country for that matter is just ridiculous. $5 trillion of debt over this nonsense.
      Alaska –
      Total Cases 339
      Total Deaths 9

    • Im impressed with craigs details. One of the best defensives againt panic based decisions is quality information and knowledge. His publications are a community resource. So the question is should Bristol bay fishing be allowed and by whom ? Well to my understanding most coastal villages cant shut themselves away without state acceptance/ agreement. I can understand if they wanted to though. Perhaps some alternative thinking / methods should occur. Floating proccesors ? Temporarily leasing of out of state permits to instate locals or freinds ? Ive seen that done . Maybe only Alaskans can work on shore in processing plants and let them be paid a high wage to attract workers. ( low wages is what keeps alaskans out of canneries) and or Maybe a one year profit sharing method done in coordination with fish and game where fish traps or nets at mouths of rivers manned by locals only are put into place and carefully overseen by fish and game to allow escapement. The profits could be shared by local man power, fish and game and the permit owners who never have to step foot and risk disease transmission. Im sure someone smarter than I could come up with a good plan . That said theres also tge possibility we should just recognize theres minimal risk of this disease compared to many others already in tge villages. I do see a way the fish could be carefully harvested and proccesed if folks were willing to bend . Disease transmission would be minimal. Bringing workers from foreign countries or out of state is just asking for trouble.

      • Or just bring in off shore processing and long line or seine nets and catch em far enough away from shore its not a concern of disease transmission. They can bring their own tankers if needed. Share tge profits. One year only . Adapt or die . Our economy must be allowed to improvise.

      • Pirate: there is a far more simple solution in the harvesting component of the fishery . Fish Traps. It would take some creative legislative gyrations undoubtedly but traps are unbelievably effective and require little manpower. The problem is the many workers that are required to process the fish. Most work takes place in shore based processing plants which transfer frozen or otherwise processed fish to floaters or large commercial aircraft. It will be impossible for these thousands of people to comply with Mandates. Pretty sure many may not even read or speak English. Good luck with that.

      • Alaskans first , please see my first and second comment. It roughly resolve lsues you mentioned. Combined with your legislative gyrations. Thanks

    • This attitude that the villages seem to have developed is causing policy that is very expensive for those of us who do pay into the system and definitely not sustainable. Do these communities think they can go for an 18 month lockdown if( a BIG if) there is a vaccine by then? And we all pay in the interim? The State and the Feds are not a bottomless pit of money. Aggressively protect the Elders and let this thing run.

      • Bob,

        If a village has greater than 50% unemployment then there is no end to the timeline to the “benefits” they can receive, so of course these communities think the state and fed are a bottomless pit of money. The fed printing money and handing it out to multi-billion dollar “native corporations” as covid relief is another reason for these communities to think that way. The fed has said and shown that there is no end to the amount of money they can print.

        From 60 Minutes:

        Scott Pelley: Is the Fed just going to print money?

        Neel Kashkari: That’s literally what Congress has told us to do. That’s the authority that they’ve given us, to print money and provide liquidity into the financial system. And that’s how we do it. We create it electronically. And then we can also print it with the Treasury Department, print it so that you can get money outta your ATM.

        Neel Kashkari: We’re being very aggressive. And I think our chairman, Jay Powell, has learned from the experience of 2008. We’re moving much faster than we moved in 2008. We’re being more aggressive. Is there more we can do? Yes. Is there more we may end up doing? Yes. But I think we’re being very aggressive. I think that’s the right thing.

        Scott Pelley: Can you characterize everything that the Fed has done this past week as essentially flooding the system with money?

        Neel Kashkari: Yes. Exactly.

        Scott Pelley: And there’s no end to your ability to do that?

        Neel Kashkari: There is no end to our ability to do that.

      • Steve-O, I just fell on the floor and I can’t get up… Holy Chit…WOW!!

      • Bryan,

        Was it the part where he said that they have been flooding the system with money and that there is no end to their ability to flood the system with money that got you?

      • Steve-
        My thinking is that the only employment or entrepreneurial opportunities in most of the villages comes from either comm fish, sport fish, adventure travel and hunting.These lockdowns take all that away. So 100% off the goverment. Sustainable?

      • 1. It’s an emergency response – literally.
        2. People are thinking safety/death, rather than sustainability.
        3. People (read villages) are waiting for tests and containment. Existentially waiting to see what happens and how to go from there.
        4. Information flow is poor, lacking, slow, chaotic, urban-centric. People in villages are not sitting at the computer doing Google searches and watching cable news.

Leave a Reply