‘Everybody’s worst nightmare’: Bering Sea fishermen on edge after COVID-19 closes second plant

Two crew men shovel a deck full of fish on board a large boat
Crew members Joe Johnson, left, and Derrick Justice shovel pollock on the deck of the Commodore as another crew member, Brian Hagen, holds the hose. (Photo by Nathaniel Herz / Alaska’s Energy Desk)

One of North America’s largest fish processing plants is shutting down as a COVID-19 outbreak grows and owner Trident Seafoods struggles to test its 700-person workforce. 

The plant, on the isolated island of Akutan, is the second in the Aleutians to shut down this year, just as the billion-dollar Bering Sea pollock fishery was set to kick off.  

Now, fishermen and industry leaders are anxious that they might not have places to offload their catch, and that their plants might be the next to close down, said Dan Martin, who manages a fleet of nine pollock trawlers for a company called Evening Star Fisheries. 

“Any hiccups like this, you really have to reshuffle the deck and try to figure out, ‘Okay, what’s the next step?'” said Martin, a retired skipper. He called the shutdowns “everybody’s worst nightmare.”

The winter fishery for Bering Sea pollock, which goes into products like McDonald’s fish sandwiches, officially opened Wednesday. But two of the region’s largest processors are both shut down: the Trident plant in Akutan, and the UniSea plant located 35 miles to the southwest in the Aleutian port town of Unalaska. 

A blue warehouse building with a small entry building oustdie where employees in hazmat equiipment wait
There were about 700 processing workers at UniSea’s facility over the summer, plus support workers, many of whom are full-time residents of Unalaska, according to Tom Enlow. He said the processing workforce will go up to about 1,000 come “A” season. (Hope McKenney/KUCB)

UniSea shut down earlier this month after a number of processing workers tested positive for the virus, following a New Year’s Eve gathering on company premises. 

UniSea and other onshore Aleutian plants fly in hundreds of workers to process pollock each season. And last year, they were largely successful in keeping COVID-19 out of their facilities through strict travel quarantines and other measures.

But the upcoming season appears to be posing more of a challenge, as companies contend with much higher rates of COVID-19 in Alaska and the Lower 48, where many of their workers come from. 

RELATED: Alaska fishing communities feared COVID-19 contagion from industry. It hasn’t shown up.

In addition to the two outbreaks at UniSea’s and Trident’s plants, the City of Unalaska also announced earlier this week that a large factory trawler, the Ocean Peace, came into port with seven infected members of its crew of 52.

UniSea officials say they hope to have their plant reopened by the end of next week. But Trident announced Thursday that its Akutan plant would close for three full weeks. 

“We know that COVID-19 is now on the site, and until we test everyone we won’t know how extensive it is,” Stefanie Moreland, a Trident executive, said in a prepared statement. “This is the best way to contain the spread of the virus.”

Trident’s outbreak at its huge Akutan plant has been a particularly thorny problem because of its remoteness. 

The island has an airport, but no functional runway, so planes can’t fly there. 

Instead, workers fly to Unalaska, then either boat directly to Akutan, or take a boat or flight to another neighboring island, followed by a helicopter to Trident’s plant.

On Thursday, four days after a handful of workers had tested positive for the coronavirus, bad weather meant that Trident was still lacking the supplies it needs to conduct mass testing of its Akutan workforce.

Some buildings next to the water against a hill
The Trident plant in Akutan, which requires either a boat ride or a helicopter ride. (Laura Kraegel/KUCB)

“The weather, it is kind of slowing down getting some additional medical personnel and some additional testing resources out there,” Tom Koloski, a state emergency management specialist, said in a briefing with reporters Thursday. 

He added that Trident has “the situation well in hand,” and said “they’re doing the right things” to isolate infected workers and quarantine their suspected close contacts while awaiting further testing supplies.

“We’re in daily meetings with the company, and they have let us in on what their plan is and we fully support it,” Koloski said.

In the meantime, many fishermen who normally deliver fish to Trident or Unisea are able to hold off. 

That’s because the pollock fishery operates as a cooperative, where vessels have a fixed quota of fish they can catch and deliver to a specific plant. And that means that crews that don’t catch their quota now can still catch it later in the season, industry officials say.

Short plant closures are manageable, but a longer shutdown would be problematic, said Brent Paine, executive director of United Catcher Boats, a trade group whose members fish for Bering Sea Pollock. 

“If they can’t get their workforce able to work here in the next month, or the next couple months, that is a problem,” Paine said. 

UniSea officials say they think their outbreak is controllable. The company is currently waiting on test results after retesting its entire workforce for a second time, according to Tom Enlow, the company’s chief executive. 

When those results are back from a Washington laboratory, Enlow said UniSea will make a plan to gradually reopen and prepare their plant to take deliveries. 

“We’re confident that we think that we can get this contained here,” Enlow said. “We’ll know more in the next couple of days as results from the mass testing come back.”

While Alaska’s seafood industry has lobbied for early vaccine access for workers, Alaska chose to vaccinate its elders before starting the process for essential workers outside of health care. 

Martin, the retired skipper, said that it’s unsettling to see the virus get into the Aleutian plants, knowing how seriously his company and others have taken it.

“These guys at UniSea and Trident — I know their management, and I know that they were as vigilant as we’ve been,” Martin said. “So it’s almost scarier, because it’s coming down to the luck of the draw.”

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