Tiny Alaskan village tries to manage influx of commercial fishermen amid COVID-19

Katherine Carscallen's livelihood depends on seasonal sockeye salmon fishing in Bristol Bay, Alaska, but she fears COVID-19 may cause history to repeat itself. - (Courtesy Katherine Carscallen)By KAYNA WHITWORTH, CONNOR BURTON and JENNA HARRISON, ABC News

(BRISTOL BAY, Alaska) -- "It's just how the earth is supposed to be," says third-generation commercial fishing boat captain Katherine Carscallen. She's talking about her homeland, Bristol Bay, Alaska. Every June and July, more than half of the world's supply of sockeye salmon are pulled from these waters.

It sounds excessive, but it's not; in a highly regulated practice, thousands of fish are left to return home and spawn, allowing the industry to support the region for generations.

The yearly salmon fishery brings in an estimated $200 million in direct revenue to the community of Bristol Bay, says Norm Van Vactor, president and CEO of Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation.

"Overall, it's a multi-billion dollar fishery," he says of the thousands of fisherman who come from all over the world to fish for salmon. On average, 10,000 fishermen come each year -- but oftentimes that number is upwards of 15,000. In addition, 6,000 fish processing workers also descend on the tiny community.

Fishing has dangers of its own, but this year the peril is invisible. The isolated community of Bristol Bay has only recorded three cases of COVID-19 as of June 20, and now many of those arriving could be carrying the deadly virus. As a result, some local fishermen wanted this year's fishery to be canceled.

"There's no doubt that this is putting the region at risk. And if it was our choice, it likely wouldn't be happening," says Carscallen.

The commercial fishery hasn't even begun and it's already seeing an outbreak at a fish processing plant. On June 22, 12 of the 52 workers screened tested positive. They were immediately isolated.

Bristol Bay is home to only 6,500 people, and most are Alaskan natives who feel their safety is at risk if the fishery were to commence.

"The vast majority of our economy is the heart of the commercial fishery," said Alannah Hurley, executive director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay. "It was a hard decision to make but it was a necessary one."

For the locals, it's their land -- but not their call.

In an official COVID-19 Health Mandate sent out by his office in April, Gov. Mike Dunleavy laid out guidelines for independent commercial fishing vessels to follow while the industry begins its fishing season.

"The State of Alaska acknowledges the importance of our commercial fishing fleet to our economy and lifestyle as Alaskans," the statement said. "In order to ensure a safe, productive fishing season this year, while still protecting Alaskan communities to the maximum extent possible from the spread of the virus, the State is establishing standardized protective measures to be followed by all independent commercial fishing vessels operating in Alaskan waters and ports."

Dr. Catherine Hyndman, clinical director of Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation, says, "testing should be mandatory, and people should get tested on a number of occasions."

The first planeloads of fisherman began arriving June 1. Carscallen picked up her uncle who comes every year. Wearing a mask, he hopped into the bed of her pickup truck. She dropped him off at a converted shipping container, where he plans to disappear, ready his nets in solitude, and then hit the water with a small crew.

A 14-day quarantine is mandated by the state but not enforced, and testing is available. Hurley tells ABC News that they are seeing people "completely disregard quarantine and safety measures."

"It's all based on the honor system," said Van Vactor. "There's no follow-up, there are no real penalties in place if you don't comply. There's no way they're even checking to see if you're complying."

Vactor said he and others have been "banging their heads against the wall for months," asking the state for mandated pre-quarantine testing, post-quarantine testing and help enforcing the rules.

"To date, the state has virtually done none of that," he said.

For those who decide to get tested, Hyndman says she has seen a few cases where fishermen initially test negative "and then 10 or 12 days into their quarantine they test positive after a second test."

One of the largest fishing companies in the United States, Trident Seafoods, told ABC News in a statement that they have implemented their own stringent protocols throughout all operations. A representative tells ABC News they "require 14-day, monitored quarantines in hotels with security guards that we provide for all of our Alaska shore plant and large vessel workforce, with PCR testing before safe secure transfer to the destination work site." They also offer daily health screenings.

Once the fish are caught, they are sent directly to fish processing plants in Bristol Bay. Here workers prepare the fish, freeze them and then send them all over the world. A former processing plant manager himself, Vactor says in a typical year the common cold is a huge problem. "Now you interject this? It's definitely very, very concerning," he said.

In a processing plant, thousands of workers stand shoulder-to-shoulder working 16- to 20-hour shifts, eating together in mess halls and then bunking together -- in some cases, six to eight people to a room. Vactor wonders how a virus like COVID-19 can possibly be kept from spreading.

"There were a lot of other things that used to keep me up at night, Vactor said, "but boy, this one is a pretty daunting task."

If the concern among locals is high, it may be because many of the village elders were raised by orphans of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. A food processing worker brought the flu into the community, and "It decimated the population," says Hurley.

Many of the people who are asking that this year's fishery be canceled are direct descendants.

Hurley also fears that the local community is extremely susceptible and that the virus would quickly spread out of control. The largest hospital in the region has just 12 beds, and anyone who gets sick is transported by Medevac to Anchorage for care. As a result, arriving fishermen are being encouraged to get Medevac insurance.

Carscallen has been on a boat since the day after she was born, and began running her own crew at age 13. For her, the fishery is all she knows and she now fears her way of life could be threatened; it's not a question of whether the coronavirus will hit her region, but how bad it will be.

"I really just hope we're not forgotten about once the spread happens," she said.

Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

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