Copper River salmon fishery nears without travel restrictions from Cordova City Council

Published: Apr. 13, 2020 at 7:45 PM AKDT
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While coastal communities across Alaska grapple with the questions of if and how they should allow commercial fishing and processing operations in their communities this summer, the time table for deciding how to move forward is running short in Cordova.

As of Monday, commercial salmon fishing operations in Cordova are moving forward with few protections in place for residents beyond statewide health mandates.

“We live in a bubble, and I very much think our bubble is about to burst,” lifelong Cordova resident Sylvia Lange said. “While we are pretty much first, we are not alone, and I feel for every single community that has to go through this.”

The Copper River’s sockeye and Chinook salmon are the state’s first commercial salmon fishery, and the demand from chefs in Seattle, Anchorage and other urban restaurants for the season’s first salmon has traditionally driven strong prices.

Although it is not business as usual for fishermen preparing for the mid-May opening, some people in the community fear that not nearly enough has changed to protect the town from a coronavirus outbreak.

Cordova is home to just over 2,000 people, and the population swells in the summer during fishing season.

Under Health Mandate 12 as issued on March 27, Cordova was eligible to enact travel restrictions in addition to state mandates because it's a community of less than 3,000 people and does not have a hub hospital operated by the tribal healthcare system. However, the mandate was amended last week, and because of the type of hospital it has, Cordova was excluded from being able to implement an “Alaska Small Community Emergency Travel Order.”

On Monday, the Cordova City Council voted on three emergency ordinances.

It passed one that gives the city the ability to issue a $500 fine for violating local emergency ordinances. It passed another that ratifies temporary emergency rules and procedures.

The third emergency ordinance that failed was a proposal to put a two week hold on travel into the city from April 15 through April 29, excluding people seeking care at Cordova Critical Access Hospital, first responders, police officers and Office of Children’s Service workers.

The council heard more than an hour of public testimony on the ordinances, with public opinion divided on whether or not to put a hold on travel into the community. The city’s attorney advised that due to the recent change to Health Mandate 12, the ordinance would be vulnerable to legal challenges. Every council member voted against the ordinance.

“There was a lot of rumors going on, there was a lot of misconception that it was going to be possible to close the airport, and that was not true and have basically been told with utmost certainty that that is not going to happen," said Mike Mickelson, a commercial fisherman in Cordova. "So as a commercial fisherman, I’m about about that and happy that processors can operate. I know it’s not going to be business as usual, but I’m happy that we can have a salmon fishery and fulfill an essential role to the nation to provide food.”

Mickelson says that what he has heard from the processor who buys his fish has convinced him that the fishery can be held successfully and safely.

“Basically what I’m hearing is very encouraging," Mickelson said. "The larger processors in the State of Alaska already have plants open that are dealing with groundfish right now, so they’re already getting practice on what to do in these situations, how to set everything up, and I’m confident that they can do it here.”

Some fishermen who spoke against the travel hold said that restricting travel would disrupt plans for their crews to travel to the area and complete a 14-day quarantine before the start of the season.

Yet for some townspeople, the approaches taken to prevent the spread of coronavirus are too small.

Sylvia Lange runs a hotel, bar and restaurant on the Cordova Harbor with her husband. The couple also owns a salmon tender boat which one of their sons runs. Another son owns and operates a seine vessel for salmon.

Lange shut down the restaurant and bar a few days before a state mandate required closing dining rooms because she felt she could not keep her staff or customers adequately protected from the virus.

“I’m enormously concerned. I know people are working with their hearts in the right place, but they’re coming at it from different angles. Our livelihood comes from salmon, and the salmon are going to be here in less than a month," Lange said. "If we keep business as usual with safeguards in place, I think we have planned for a best-case scenario. And to my knowledge, the golden rule of planning for an emergency is you plan for the worst-case scenario and hope for the best.”

Lange said she fears the hospital, which does not have an Intensive Care Unit or ventilators, will be overrun if there is any outbreak in Cordova.

“Not everyone is going to see the situation the same," Lange said. "A fisherman by their very nature, one, they’re optimists. Two, they’re very independent. And three, they see the world through a very narrow focus, and I know this because I was a fisherman. I was gillnetter for 20 years on my own boat by myself. And that’s all I thought of. I know that feeling. Catching fish, making a living independently and being your own boss, it’s intoxicating. And that’s what they’re built for, and I get it. But this pandemic puts a whole different spin on that.”

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