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The season begins

 

The Alaska fishing season in the Year of COVID-19 is off to a very rocky start.

“Alaska’s economy has the triple threat,” said Ty Wyatt, a guide at fishing lodge in the tiny community of Yakutat on the Gulf of Alaska. “I’m guessing a recession like none we have ever seen.”

The triple threat was a reference to crashing oil prices, a tourism season looking to go bust, and commercial salmon fisheries threatened by COVID-19 outbreaks that have shutdown pork, beef, poultry and fish processing operations around the globe.

A Tyson Fresh Meats plant in the state of Washington is operating at half capacity because of a COVID-19 outbreak that has infested 277 workers and killed three, the Tri-City Herald reported Saturday.

The pandemic virus has struck 19 percent of the 1,482 workers at the plant, the newspaper reported. Sited near Kennewick, the operation processes cattle from Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Canada giving it some control over its supply chain.

Fish processing plants in Alaska have little control. The salmon come in a steady, month-long rush, and if they are caught and not processing promptly, they spoil. Fishermen are already worrying about plants putting them on limits, a historic occurrence in situations where processors recognize fishing fleets are able to catch more fish than can be processed.

Before SARS-CoV-2 rocked the world, the state predicted a harvest of 34.6 million sockeye – 38 percent more than the historic average. But that catch is now contingent on processing plants being able to process the fish.

Good side of bad

Processing capacity was not a problem in Cordova where the total salmon catch for the opening day of the season was shy of 3,200. The state’s preseason forecast called for a king – or Chinook salmon harvest – 20 percent above average, but warned of a return of sockeye, or red salmon, only two-third the average size.

Still, the forecast projected a catch of 12,400 salmon for the first fishing period, nearly three times the numbers caught.

Fisheries managers cautioned that it is still early in the season. There are hopes for a better catch during the second opening on Monday.

The Copper River is running low, and ice remains after a long, cold winter in the 49th state. Because of ice, state fish managers were having trouble installing their salmon counter in the river.

“The north and south bank sonar sites are currently ice-free, but the continued breakup of Miles Lake ice is expected to make sonar deployment challenging in the coming days,” a Fish and Game announcement said.

Fishermen were reported to be getting a price of $3.50 to $4 per pound for bled sockeye in the round, delivered on ice and $6.25 to $7 per pound for kings.

The sockeye price was less than half of the opening-day price last year, and the king price about a third of last year. The lower prices were blamed on the many high-end restaurants closed by government-ordered, social-distancing rules intended to slow the spread of the contagious coronavirus.

Given the prices and with kings running at an average weight shy of 14 pounds with sockeye just over 5 pounds, the average fishermen was looking at a payday of only about $550.

Low fuel prices did help to reduce the cost of fishing, but it was not a good start to the season. There is hope that the return of fish will be higher in the coming week, and prices could creep upward given a catch so low that there reportedly weren’t enough fish to meet the demand from the retail markets to which catch was being shifted.

As in years past, Alaska Airlines made a show of delivering the first salmon to Sea-Tac Airport, but social-distancing rules took a lot of the excitement out of the party despite pubic relations efforts to spin the event toward health-care workers battling the global pandemic.

“The prized seasonal fish — more brightly hued and fattier than your average salmon (and more expensive) — is usually honored each year by an Alaskan Airlines pilot in front of a cheering crowd,” the Seattle Eater reported. “Even though there was understandably no such pomp and circumstance this time, the occasion will be marked in a more appropriate way….chef Tom Douglas plans to serve 200 donated Copper River salmon dishes for Swedish Hospital medical professionals on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, and then sell the fish Sunday at SeriousTakeout to the general public, with proceeds going to the food bank-supporting nonprofit Food Lifeline.”

The quiet state

The tourist season – if there is enough of one for it to even be called a season – is a total unknown. Some businesses are still holding out hope that if the quarantine is lifted or coupled to better testing and significantly shortened in June, a least some small part of the normal stream of non-resident anglers could trickle north.

Non-resident anglers are big business in the state. Nearly three out of every four fishing licenses sold last year went to non-residents, according to Fish and Game. The sales produced more than $16 million in revenue for the state.

The anglers themselves are vital to tourism businesses in the salmon-producing regions of the state, and their revenue is equally important to the Sport Fish Division of Fish and Game which needs the income from the sale of licenses to cover a 25 percent match that each year leverages it three times as much money from the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act.

Under the terms of the Act, the federal government grants to states $3 for every $1 dollar they put up to manage fisheries. The federal funding comes from a 10 percent excise tax on sportfishing gear and boating equipment.

The program is a win-win for the state of Alaska, which primarily uses funds from non-resident license sales to match federal funds coming primarily from the sale of fishing and boating gear to Outside residents.

State resident license fees account for only about 20 percent of Alaska license revenue, and though Alaska residents might individually spend heavily on fishing and boating gear, their expenditures are a drop in the bucket compared to what is spent Outside.

Alaska’s financial problems at the moment look bigger than its pandemic problems. The state has been an oasis in a sea of pandemic with an infection rate of but 536 cases per million people and a death rate of but 14 per million.

Only Wyoming and Hawaii have lower death rates, according to the Worldometer data tracking website, and only Hawaii and Montana have lower infection rates. The death rate in little-populated Alaska is less than 1/100th of that in crowded New York.

The economic costs, however, are expected to be high. Tourism is the state’s biggest employer, and it usually starts gearing up this time of year. Hawaii, with a tourism season less seasonal than that of Alaska, has watched its unemployment role grow from 3 percent before the pandemic hit the U.S. in March to a record 34 percent now.

“The mandatory 14-day, self-quarantine requirement for arriving visitors and residents has largely put a stop to tourism,” the University of Hawaii reported at the start of the month. “The unprecedented pause in economic activity has had a profoundly negative impact on Hawaii, with a sharp drop in spending, employment, and income.

Economists there offered an “optimistic scenario…consistent with (a) rapid increase in test availability nationally within just the next two months, so that a moderate return of visitors is possible by late summer. Good control over the virus on the US mainland and abroad would permit further recovery as the year progresses. Even under this optimistic scenario, we see lingering traveler concerns, high business costs of maintaining social distancing, and a deep US and global recession combining to limit the extent of visitor industry recovery this year. Visitor arrivals losses would remain significant through December.”

“In our pessimistic scenario, then, we assume no significant tourism reopening until the last week of September, eliminating all of the summer high season. Progress thereafter is slow, and the winter high season is still below 50 percent of normal. A delay of significant tourism reopening will pose tremendous challenges for the industry, and, absent significant additional federal support, will very likely lead to bankruptcies and additional loss of jobs. With a more attenuated recovery of tourism activity and business failures in the industry, the recovery of the non-tourism economy will face increased drag from overall macroeconomic weakness. Further, ‘local’ restaurants or other businesses that rely only partially on tourism spending—and operate with thin margins in the best of times—may either fail to reopen or begin to fail once federal support has ended.”

No officials projections have been offered for Alaska, but the general feeling one gets in talking to those in the Alaska tourism business is that 49th state is most likely looking at Hawaii’s “pessimistic scenario.”

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20 replies »

  1. We won’t get our economy back without getting the virus under control. Its unfortunate and many would like to deny the pain exists, but it is here and its real and government mandated closures or no, if people are getting sick the economy will not recover. We don’t have adequate testing and are opening too soon. There will likely be a long fat tail to the pandemic. On top of that our economy was already crashing behind the high finance smoke and mirrors.

  2. The biggest question is what are these processors going to do to ensure this stops happening? If you think the problems at the meat processing plants below won’t happen here you are lying to yourself. There have now been five confirmed cases of covid in fish processors and the salmon season has barely just begun. Pretty soon it’s going to start costing these fish processors more money to fly infected people in, around, and out of state than it would to rent a couple hotels for a couple weeks and keep their people from being infected and spreading the disease to others.

  3. The 14 day quarantine is cumbersome & unenforceable. It is only there to cover Dr. Zink’s incompetence & the Governor’s reliance on her awful advice. Back in March she was urging Alaskans who were outside the State ( many of whom were in the midst of outbreaks ) to return to Alaska immediately!

  4. There is no requirement for out of state seafood workers to be tested on arrival at Ted Stevens. Should one wish to be tested, or if an employer wants his crew tested, they must be signed up in advance.
    What you folks are missing here is the quarantine part. All seafood workers, regardless of where they are headed, must quarantine at some location. No one has the facilities to quarantine 50 processors separately, let alone 500. They are quarantined in groups — at company expense — prior to going “shoulder to shoulder” on the processing line. As in Dillingham, you have one positive, and the entire group goes back into quarantine. That isn’t cheap. The processor and ultimately the fisherman pays for this.
    All this said, I wholeheartedly agree with you guys about the tourist industry. Let them come; if people are petrified they will get covid — then test them at the airport. The remote risk of catching something from a visitor is a risk we should have to accept. It is either that or let all of us go broke.. 34% unemployment??!!?
    Covid-19? it may be a legitimate virus. Okay. But don’t put your fear on me. I will accept the risks as the lesser of the evils. Stay home if you are in a high enough risk category to worry.

    • John,
      Your stance is all fine and dandy,but what about the potential risk to others that u may pose.
      My sister in OR has allergies and diabetes,her live at home daughter a newly minted stylist,is itching to get on with her trade(?).
      I have a lady friend here in the valley,an RDH,registered dental hygenist.20+yrs in the trade.
      She’s scared to death of u breathing on her.PPE or no.
      We are writing the script for this movie as we go along.To think that things are going to be “normal”,
      By mere decree is reaching way out there.
      GL stay out of the water

      • Dave, take this kindly please, but how is your friends or families safety or precautions our concerns? Just like it is none of our business whether you lock your house every night before going to bed. Shut the economy down because your sister who has diabetes or because your girlfriend is scared to death of people these days.
        “What about my potential risk to others”? Kind of like saying there is a “potential risk” of bears on the trail. It would be YOUR job to mitigate that risk. Not mine.

    • There are going to be more cases. That is a certainty. We are all past the point where we remained shuttered. We flattened the curve. Our resources have not and will not be overwhelmed. And then they move the goalposts. And moved them again.
      Protect the most vulnerable, stay home if you wish. But the rest of us need to get on with LIFE.

    • John: Have you been to any of the shore based processing facilities in BB? I have in many occasions.
      Under current mandates both the permit holders and their crews are required “ if possible “ to comply with social distancing as well as wear masks etc. They live on a 32’ vessel in a cabin that is around 10 by 10’. Generally there are three on the vessel.. So, safe to say the mandates are not possible. But even though “ quarantined “ they are permitted to fish or perform other work on the vessel.
      The cannery and other processor workers are also under quarantine. But like the fishers they may perform their work so long as they comply with restrictions “ if possible”.
      Their bunk houses, shower, toilet, dining facilities, and work stations make it sometimes impossible to comply. But they are nevertheless permitted to perform their work. For some of these workers, english is their second language. So sometimes it is difficult to convey to some, the requirements.
      Yes it can be be expensive to require compliance “ if possible” but processors are in the game for profit and my experience was that they would sometimes cut corners and look the other way when heath regulations were violated. Now they only have to comply “if possible”.

      Remember also that some crew members come from the local native communities and when their vessel is in port they stay home in generally small dwellings where social distancing can also be impossible.

      All this leads a reasonable person to conclude that there is a disproportionate risk involved. Yet these people are permitted to work right after entering the state while a visitor must find a hotel or other location and stay put for 14 days. Crazy!

  5. The season in the Bay hasn’t even started and they’ve already brought covid there after a two week quasi-quarantine where others were exposed. Not a good start at all.

  6. Leos :
    Forgot to mention that the state is hiring a contractor who will administer these Covid19 tests at the airport upon their arrival.

  7. Don’t worry,
    Trump is working to mobilize the military to vaccinate the country in a few months?
    “We’re mobilizing our military and other forces, but we’re mobilizing our military on the basis that we do have a vaccine,” Trump said in an interview with Fox Business’s Maria Bartiromo…
    You know, it’s a massive job to give this vaccine. Our military is now being mobilized so at the end of the year we’re going to be able to give it to a lot of people very, very rapidly,” he added.”

    https://thehill.com/policy/defense/497863-trump-says-hes-mobilizing-military-to-distribute-potential-coronavirus-vaccine

    • I’m not taking any of their flu shots. Below I copied and pasted a few excerpts from Military.com..

      1. “‘Efforts that were underway against the SARS coronavirus were halted early because that disease was contained after infecting about 8,000 people, and it was therefore not judged profitable to pursue.” (Military.com)

      Actually what had happened back in 2002 was that all 4 vaccines that were made ended up magnifying the symptoms of SARS CoV-1 and ultimately killing the vaccinated animals in the tests, so they never went on to testing humans. (Me with the 2012 SARS CoV-1 study Report)

      2. “Vaccines do exist for animal coronaviruses, for example a type of coronavirus that infects chickens — and this is used by farmers. However, it also kills a certain percentage of chickens, and such an outcome would not be acceptable in humans.” (Military.com)

      Really (Just Me)

      Funny how they don’t tell the whole truth with the SARS CoV-1 failure. Think about it, they didn’t shut the country down for SARS CoV-1, and the world survived it, but they shut it down for SARS CoV-2. (Me Again)

      Article:
      https://www.military.com/daily-news/2020/05/15/army-general-lead-operation-warp-speed-effort-get-covid-19-vaccine.html

  8. Craig, Dunleavy extended the 14 day self quarantine for travelers to June 2nd, not June 14.

  9. Meanwhile, CFEC permit holders, their crews, fish processor employees and others used in the fishing industry coming from outside the state get tested upon arrival at Ted Stevens Airport and if negative head to the various fishing locations to engage in a high risk quarantine. It is high risk because 1 ) the tests have a very high percentage of false negatives and ), it is NOT a quarantine. They all are sharing close quarters with one another and are working at the jobs they were brought to Alaska to perform. All because they are part of a “critical “ industry.

    At the same time those money spending tourists, who apparently are not “critical” to the State’s tourism industry, are not tested at the airport and thus have to find a place to then spend two weeks in before they can do what they came for; ie spending lots of money in the state while enjoying all it offers. Who will do that?

    How is it that these visitors cannot be tested and then head to their tourism destinations and engage in their activities while practicing social distancing and other protective measures. But tens of thousands of seasonal workers, from who knows where, can.

    Many decisions involving who gets restricted and who doesn’t seem to have political motivations. Tourists don’t vote in Alaska’s elections. Somewhere near half or more of those who fish or crew in Alaska’s yearly fishies are Alaska voters. Their communities which benefit from the fisheries consist of even more voters.
    Perhaps the Administration has forgotten about all the small businesses and their infrastructure that will
    suffer by continuing the quarantine and which in many cases will fail because of it. But I am pretty sure those affected by this discriminatory practice will not have forgotten when they cast their ballots next election.

    • I do no not think there is any testing going on at Ted Stevens airport. Mandate 17 does not include it. I returned April 25 directly to Cordova and no test was performed. Has something changed at Ted Stevens since then and who is doing this testing.

      • Leoamericus:
        This Friday Commissioner Crum and others participated in a live streaming press conference where Crum
        stated that starting next Tuesday commercial fishing people arriving in Anchorage could be tested, wait for 48 hrs and if negative could then travel to their work locations. Like Bristol Bay etc. There they will follow health mandates but will be able to perform their work. It will be impossible for fishing crews and processor workers to do their jobs and be able to engage in safe practices. Crammed bunkhouses, small cabins in fishing vessels, and elbow to elbow next to conveyor belts moving fish are example of why it will be impossible.

        Meantime, should tourists who want to take a fishing trip to a remote lodge, drive to a remote camp, sight see etc, the tests will not be available to them and they will have to Quarantine somewhere for 14 days and not leave their chosen place, not fish, nor dine elsewhere or go anywhere for two weeks. Period! All while those cannery and processor workers get to perform and get paid for their work. Who made these people more important than the thousands of tourists who contribute far more to Alaska’s economy than processor employees, say in Bristol Bay. Tourists are the most important part of critical enterprise called tourism.

      • Alaskan First, you are correct. It is stupid. Reminds me of Walmart. You can go in and out of there, stroll through the isles, stand in line, shoot the bull, but you can’t in Basspro which generally isn’t half as crowded. So, say we have 10 stores and close 5 of them. Would the remaining 5 be more crowded or less? Of course, so, what have we really accomplished? Nothing! I mean, I feels good, gov is protecting us right??
        Also, isn’t it funny how fast NY turned around from mass carnage and millions dying tk off the front pages in a few weeks?
        To quarantine tourists for 14 days is the DUMBEST idea one could think of. What in the hell are they going to do come Oct/Nov when the media starts their 2nd phase panic BS? After all, there is an election then. Was Alaska shutdown over SARS? What? No vaccine either? Oh my!!
        Let me spell this out, 60-70% of ALL Covid deaths were from nursing homes. The average age is 79.6 to. See how all this seems to STOOPID?

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