COVID-19 and Alaska's Fish Processors

Published: Jun. 17, 2020 at 7:06 PM AKDT
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Alaska's fishing industry has dealt with fluctuating fish runs and ocean storms. But Covid-19 is a new force to be reckoned with.

Alaska seafood is a 5.6 billion dollar industry, according to research released in January by McDowell Group. As salmon season ramps up, fish processors - an integral link in the sea-to-market supply chain - face a myriad of economic and workforce challenges due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

"Like other critical infrastructure in the State of Alaska, we're trying to figure out how to work in the state, in many rural areas across Alaska, from Ketchikan to Nome, in seafood processing to try to support commercial fisheries, (and) create economic activity, but do it in a safe way," Nicole Kimball, an analyst with the Alaska Seafood Processors Association told KTUU.

Processors large and small across the state prep Alaska's Halibut, cod, salmon, crab, and other species for distribution to restaurants, cruise ships, and reprocessors worldwide.

The State of Alaska has required this employment sector to file COVID-19 safety and mitigation plans, which include the testing and quarantine of incoming employees, and the isolation of employees who may test positive. Processors are also required to provide personal protective equipment for staff, and to implement workplace changes - like plexiglass dividers - that will help create separation among laborers who are often in close quarters in damp environments. They share bunk rooms, restrooms, and kitchens. The outbreak of an infectious disease could be catastrophic not only for the company but also for the small, isolated communities in which they often work.

Trident Seafoods has invested more than a million dollars alone in mitigation strategies, which include what the company has likened to a "chain of custody" for humans: facility upgrades, testing, quarantine, security, safe transport to processing sites, closed campuses once employees arrive.

Whittier Seafood, located in the town of Whittier south of Anchorage, found itself dealing with the situation many feared when many of its employees tested positive for COVID-19. Office Manager Cathy McCord told KTUU most of the 11 employees who tested positive were members of the same bunkhouse, had only newly arrived, and were still in mandatory quarantine when the illness was detected.

"It's been difficult," McCord said.

The sick employees weren't yet on the processing line, so they aren't drawing pay. Their ability to get to work is delayed until they are well, hampering staffing levels. Employees who are at work want to stay healthy and well. Community members are worried about the spread of illness from incoming workers. Meanwhile, the season is underway, and as the fish runs strengthen, the workload increases.

McCord, a Washington-state resident who's worked in Alaska canneries for 25 years, told KTUU keeping up with the daily workload and stress created by COVID-19 is a "monumental struggle."

"We're all battling here. You know, we are all trying to make the best of a very difficult situation," McCord said. "We're not the bad guys. We're trying to perform a service. We feed millions of people, and to do that we need employees."

With the Alaska cruise ship industry canceled for the season, and downturns in demand, processers are worried about losing buyers. Already, Kimball said, projections are for restaurants and fast food company sales to be down 75 percent.

Meanwhile, there are fish to harvest, and a coveted spot in the global marketplace as a clean, sustainable source of healthy protein to maintain.

"We still need to operate here. We still need to take deliveries from independent fishermen. We still need to pay taxes to municipalities. We still need to create an economy. But what we're really doing this year is kind of maintaining our market share in the world so we can continue to have that opportunity in the future... There are a lot of substitutes for seafood out there, not just in the US, but in foreign markets," Kimball said.