Bristol Bay community leaders lay out minimum protocol needed to allow salmon season

Published: Apr. 6, 2020 at 6:22 PM AKDT
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Leaders of several major community organizations in Bristol Bay have issued a list of minimum protocols they expect to be in place before the commercial salmon fishery can take place this summer.

Among other the protocol listed, fishermen and other seasonal workers would undergo a physical exam including a COVID-19 test with a negative result no more than 48 hours before traveling to the region. After arriving in Bristol Bay, the individuals would be transported to a quarantine location and remain in quarantine until a follow-up negative COVID-19 test is confirmed. The leaders listed out other expectations, including weekly health screenings, for the seafood industry to establish as minimum protocol for the 2020 season.

“We were hearing up until we came up with our own position statement for the lack of a better word, was that what everybody was advocating for was really based around quarantine - the 14 day quarantine period. That seemed to be what was going to fix everything and make us all comfortable. The reality is, our opinion is that it’s going to take multiple types of protocol, so we think that COVID-19 testing, in combination with quarantine gives us the lowest level of risk,” Norm Van Vactor, CEO of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation said. “There’s still some risk there, and at the end of the day, our communities are going to have to decide whether even that level of risk is acceptable.”

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The protocol list comes from the Bristol Bay Working Group, which is composed of the leadership of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, Bristol Bay Native Association, Bristol Bay Native Corporation, Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation, Nushagak Cooperative, United Tribes of Bristol Bay and the Bristol Bay Housing Authority. Van Vactor says the CEOs of the organizations have been meeting informally every quarter for many years to trade information and share ideas, but have not had any notable public activity since working to help develop the Bristol Bay Regional Vision in 2010.

“We felt we needed to get something out there in front of our industry counterparts, specifically the seafood processors and the fishermen that are going to be streaming into the area in the next couple of week,” Van Vactor said.

The steps rely heavily on rapid testing, which is not yet available in the region, much less at the scale that would be needed for an influx of more than 10,000 seasonal workers.

“It’s involved. It’s complex. The reality is if the fishery were going to take place next week, the fishery wouldn’t happen based upon the protocols we’ve proposed because the testing equipment is currently not available. So that’s a chance that as community representatives we’re saying that we’re prepared to take,” Van Vactor said. “If we can get the testing in place, if we can get acceptable quarantine levels in place, and maybe something else that arises, that as community representatives we could at least feel more comfortable talking to our constituents moving forward.”

Van Vactor said the document is a living document and may be updated and amended as the situation evolves, and the Bristol Bay Working Group is open to discussions with industry.

The industry and region are also faced with other challenges stemming from coronavirus, most recently RavnAir ceasing all services. The Bristol Bay Working Group has no legislative authority and so there is no enforcement of its protocols. Rather, it relies on industry agreeing to operate in a way that meets the requests of local communities.

“First and foremost, health and safety come first. My organization is Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation. We’re charged with promoting the sustainable and renewable economic development in our region. So it’s hard for me personally to be thinking about and talking about supporting a decision where you actually adversely impact the economics of the region. But you know what - health comes first,” Van Vactor said. “We won’t have an economy unless we have healthy people.”

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