There are new health rules for fishermen arriving in Bristol Bay, but critics say there are loopholes

The Nushagak District, shown in this June 2015 photo, is one of five commercial fishing districts in Bristol Bay. (KDLG photo)
The Nushagak District, shown in this June 2015 photo, is one of five commercial fishing districts in Bristol Bay. (KDLG photo)

Thousands of commercial fishers coming to Bristol Bay will be operating under a strict set of guidelines this season, laid out in the new mandate released last week by Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration.

But some local leaders say it’s not enough.

The mandate comes at a time when the Bristol Bay region is usually gearing up for the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world. It targets independent fishing boats, many of which are operated by independent captains with small crews, who travel to Bristol Bay from Outside.

Crews who want to fish this summer will have to wear masks while traveling there, and go immediately to the place where they’ll quarantine for two weeks. Once they arrive, they’ll have their temperatures checked twice a day. The mandate requires crew members to undergo verbal and physical screenings upon arrival — and they can’t have respiratory problems or fever.

Crew members are allowed to quarantine on board their boats, and they’re still allowed to fish as long as they restrict contact with other boats and people on shore as much as possible. To protect communities, the mandate also stipulates that crew can only leave the vessel for essential purposes.

Robert Clark, the president and CEO of the Bristol Bay Area Health Corp., said the latest mandate is a step in the right direction, but it’s still not enough to protect residents.

“I don’t see from the governor or (the Bureau of Indian Affairs) or the cities or the boroughs enough enforcement to ensure that people are following the rules,” he said. “It really comes down to — plans are only as good as follow-through and enforcement. And there’s got to be some big consequences, because lives are at stake.”

The corporation’s executive committee voted to endorse closing the 2020 commercial fishery last week. Clark said that he doesn’t think that position will change when the committee meets in the second half of May.

The corporation manages Kanakanak Hospital in Dillingham, which is the region’s only hospital. It is licensed for 16 beds, 12 of which are suitable for people who need additional oxygen. It has no intensive care unit and just one ventilator for emergency use on coronavirus patients.

In its announcement last week, BBAHC said that without a plan in place to protect the community and provide additional resources to the hospital, the season would put residents at risk of being infected with COVID-19.

The state said that it is working to hire a contracting company to assess security needs in the region, after which it will release an enforcement plan.

“This is something the state would find the money to pay for — to actually have security forces in-region, just to make sure that the whole industry is doing what they’re supposed to do, protecting the community, not having undue mixing, so we can have a safe fishery, which is critical to Alaska and the world’s food supply, as well as making sure the communities are protected and they have the support they need,” said state Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum, speaking at a regional town hall meeting Thursday.

Boats sitting in the Dillingham boat yard on April 21. (Photo by Isabelle Ross/KDLG)

The question of enforcement also weighs on Thomas Tilden, the first chief of the Curyung Tribal Council in Dillingham. He sees the governor’s mandate as relatively comprehensive, but there are still loopholes.

“I see it working pretty well on tenders. However, with fishing boats, you’re absolutely right, the quarters are limited, number of bathrooms are limited, sleeping bunk areas are limited,” he said. “So this would be really hard to enforce. For example, if you did have a crew member that came down sick, if you quarantined them in the cabin that means nobody else could go into the cabin. So people need to take a hard look at this and figure out what’s doable and what’s not doable.”

Boats are required to continuously monitor crew members who show signs of illness. If a worker is suspected of having COVID-19, they must wear a mask or cloth covering and stay in a private room with a door and separate bathroom facilities.

The largest commercial vessels permitted to fish in Bristol Bay are 32 feet, and they don’t have enough space to isolate sick crew members. The mandate says that in such cases, the entire vessel will be put under 14-day isolation.

Gayla Hoseth, the Curyung Tribal Council’s second chief, said that plan is not realistic, and that the mandate doesn’t clearly state what will happen if someone gets sick.

“Why should we sacrifice anybody’s life, whether you live here or whether you’re coming here? You shouldn’t have to sacrifice the life of anybody so that people could go and make some money. It’s not worth that price tag of anybody’s life right now, because we don’t have the resources to help people. We have very limited resources here,” she said.

The mandate directs fishery workers with suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19 to contact the local public health provider for guidance. If they do not require shoreside medical attention, it continues, the boat may continue fishing during a 14-day quarantine.

It specifically applies to boats that have not “agreed to operate under a fleet-wide plan submitted by a company, association or entity” representing them.

The Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, a regional seafood group, has a set of safety ideas on its website. But Executive Director Andy Wink said the association has no authority to mandate fleet-wide requirements.

“We think the state mandate is workable. We provided input on it and, again, had put out our set of safety ideas and those were incorporated into the state mandate. So yes, we feel it is — that they are workable options,” he said.

The association is trying to help fishing crews meet these safety requirements by offering discounted medevac insurance packages. They have also acquired 8,000 face masks and flags signaling if a boat is under quarantine, which they plan to distribute to the entire fleet by June.

The state will reevaluate the mandate by May 20.

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