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Bristol Bay leaders cautiously optimistic, but ask state for fishery closure if protocol can't be met

Sockeye salmon congregate before spawning. (KTUU)
Sockeye salmon congregate before spawning. (KTUU)(KTUU)
Published: Apr. 16, 2020 at 2:35 PM AKDT
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UPDATE FRIDAY APRIL 17:

Friday, Gov. Mike Dunleavy's communications director provided the following statement responding to the letter from the Bristol Bay Working Group:

"The State of Alaska continues to build testing capacity every day. Currently, testing capacity is not available to meet the requests made by the Bristol Bay work group, however, work is underway with communities, businesses, and all stakeholders in search of a balance that protects Alaskans and gives our critical fishing industry an opportunity to exist during upcoming fishing seasons."

ORIGINAL STORY:

Leaders of several major organizations in Bristol Bay say they are more confident that a salmon season may be held safely this summer, but have joined in asking Gov. Mike Dunleavy to close the fishery if certain requirements can’t be met.

Wednesday evening, the Bristol Bay Working Group sent a letter to Gov. Mike Dunleavy calling on him to close the Bristol Bay fishery for 2020 if the

cannot be met. The group comprises leaders of the Bristol Bay Housing Authority, Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, Bristol Bay Native Association, Bristol Bay Native Corporation, Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation and United Tribes of Bristol Bay.

The group’s protocols outlined in the letter include testing for people coming into the region, both before traveling to Bristol Bay and after arriving, as well as continued health screenings and other precautions.

“In the intervening two weeks, very little has happened," said Norm Van Vactor, CEO of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation. "We’re sensing as community members that this freight train that’s bearing down on us is not slowed down, and to some extent has accelerated.

“We are very concerned in a variety of different ways," he continued. "We already have a few people showing up in some of our communities that are not complying with current state laws as it related to quarantining. There is no enforcement that the state has in place to ensure that these folks do what they’re supposed to do.”

The letter from the group contains a similar message to

, calling on Dunleavy to “seriously consider” closing the fishery this summer.

“We’re saying that there needs to be protocols and policies in place that ensure our safety," Van Vactor said. "Now we also understand that there is never 100 percent in anything we do. But we do think there is an imperative on the part of our state government to ensure that all protocols and procedures that are practical are put into place to ensure public health and safety in our communities."

Van Vactor says that while there has been little action taken by the state, he’s encouraged by the steps taken by some processors and the group that represents the Bristol Bay drift fleet.

On April 7, executives from 11 seafood processors wrote an

describing their commitment to prioritizing health and safety of communities of Bristol Bay.

This week, Trident Seafoods released its 14-day quarantine plan, which includes transporting employees directly to a hotel in Anchorage where they will be given a COVID-19 orientation and initial health screening. After that, employees will be required to stay inside of their rooms for 14 days with no outside visitors or deliveries, among other requirements. Employees who don’t follow the company’s quarantine protocol will be fired, returned home, and unable to be hired by Trident in the future.

Here's Trident Seafood's quarantine plan for getting workers to its plants throughout Alaska. ADF&G Commissioner Doug...

Posted by Grant Robinson KTUU on Thursday, April 16, 2020

“A lot of the plans that we’ve seen in place to this point, we don’t feel are realistic or fairly naive," Van Vactor said, "but we’ve seen one major company, one of the largest if not the largest Alaska salmon company statewide come out 48 hours ago with probably the first real quarantine plan that is meaningful and I think will stand up to the test of science, and that was encouraging to see.

"We still think that, combined with testing, will get us a lot farther down the road," he said. “This optimism that a lot of us have needs to now translate into action. So we’ll see.”

In its

for Bristol Bay issued Wednesday, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said that it is “continuing preseason preparation for normal operations of all run-assessment projects and fishery management functions following the protocols in Alaska COVID-19 Health Mandates.”

ADF&G forecasts the inshore sockeye salmon run to be 46.6 million fish, of which 34.6 million fish are potentially available for harvest.

Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang reiterated his position Wednesday that it is premature to make a decision to close a fishery right now. He said that he’s confident the infrastructure will be in place for a successful salmon fishery first in the Copper River starting mid-May, then in Cook Inlet and Southeast Alaska before the Bristol Bay season.

“Certainly Bristol Bay is a large fishery," Vincent-Lang said. "There’s a large volume of fish that come in a short period of time which requires a larger workforce to deliver that. And right now as we’re gearing up towards that, again we’re learning about how fisheries are operating in Cordova, which is a smaller segment. And we’re going to learn about how that processing sector can work within a community and apply that knowledge as we move into Bristol Bay."

The commissioner urged patience as the department and the industry develop mitigation plans.

“I think we have time to let the mitigation plans develop and morph out as we learn more about how the fisheries operate in the environment of the COVID-19 virus," he said. "And I also think we’re going to learn a lot about the virus in the next month or two that may shed some light in how we manage these fisheries."

If the fishery were to be canceled due to coronavirus concerns, Vincent-Lang said the governor would direct him to close the fishery.

“From my chair," he said, "I’m getting the infrastructure in place to be able to manage these fisheries in the event that we can prosecute them safely and help provide some economic benefit to our local communities across Alaska."

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