The Alaska fishing season in the Year of COVID-19 is off to a very rocky start.
- Salmon catches in the fabled Copper River fishery were far below expectations on Thursday with an average harvest of 4.9 king salmon and 4.4 sockeye per boat, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game data.
- The season for sockeye in Bristol Bay, the biggest producer of wild sockeye in the world, is still a month away and already a salmon-processing employee has tested positive for COVID-19n in formerly SARS-CoV-2-free Dillingham.
- The North Pacific Management Council, an organization controlled by commercial fishing interests, has for the first time in its history tried to help out the charter, sport halibut fishery by expanding bag limits. But with the state extending until June 14 a required 14-day quarantine for non-residents and Alaskans returning to the state, most charter operators say they are pretty much dead in the water.
“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.”