Thousands Are Headed to Alaska’s Fishing Towns. So Is the Virus.
As the famed Copper River salmon season begins, isolated fishing towns are bracing for an influx of workers and their first brush with the coronavirus.
The community in Cordova, Alaska, like other fishing towns in the state, is polarized. Fishing is its lifeblood, but many wonder how many coronavirus cases it can afford. Credit…David Fulton/Alamy
By Mike Baker
The people of Cordova, Alaska, had weathered the coronavirus pandemic with no cases and the comfort of isolation — a coastal town unreachable by road in a state with some of the fewest infections per capita in the country.
But that seclusion has come to an abrupt end. Over the past two weeks, fishing boat crews from Seattle and elsewhere have started arriving by the hundreds, positioning for the start of Alaska’s summer seafood rush.
The fishing frenzy begins on Thursday with the season opening for the famed Copper River salmon, whose prized fillets can fetch up to $75 a pound at the market. Before the pandemic, Cordova’s Copper River catch was flown fresh for swift delivery to some of the country’s highest-end restaurants.
But the town of about 2,000 people has been consumed in recent weeks by debates over whether to even allow a fishing season and how to handle an influx of fishing crews that usually doubles its population.
The conditions are ideal for propagation of the coronavirus: Most of the imported crews work in the close quarters of fishing boats or sleep in crowded bunkhouses next to processing facilities. Cordova’s tiny hospital, which typically has no ventilators, could be quickly overwhelmed.
“My worry is they are hoping for the best without having planned for the worst,” said Sylvia Lange, who grew up in the fishing industry and now runs a popular restaurant and hotel in Cordova, on the shores of Alaska’s magnificent Prince William Sound.
The threat of a disrupted fishing season comes as Alaska deals with a series of crippling blows to its economy.
The state’s leading industry, oil and gas, has suffered from plummeting oil prices and subsequent layoffs. The upcoming tourism season appears in peril, with cruise ships already canceling their sailings.
Now, the state’s $5.6 billion seafood industry is at risk. Conditions at fish processing centers are often as crowded as those at the meat processing plants in the rest of the country that have proved to be magnets for coronavirus infection. And the workers there and on fishing boats typically fly in from all over the country, sometimes from all over the world.
In Cordova, the community has been polarized. On the one hand, fishing is its lifeblood. On the other, how many cases of the coronavirus can so small a town afford?
Mayor Clay Koplin tried last week to reassure the community: While the fishing season would proceed, he said in a radio briefing, the city was ready with a variety of strategies to quarantine newcomers, maintain social distancing and contain any cases that emerged.
He did not anticipate that the first case would arrive so soon — just two days later.
“It’s pretty discouraging,” Mr. Koplin said.
Health officials have rushed to contain that first case, a fish processing facility worker who had recently flown up from Seattle. They have traced and tested all who were in contact with that person and now believe the case is contained.
But with more than 50 crew members and other workers arriving each day, more infections may be coming.
With that in mind, the city has embarked on an all-stops-out effort to test, trace and isolate each and every case. Tests have been stockpiled to check anyone who develops symptoms. People found to have infections will be quarantined or removed from the city, and their contacts tracked down and tested.
It is essentially the strategy advocated by public health officials for communities across the country, once they bring their coronavirus outbreaks under control. Cordova provides a unique opportunity to see how effective such a protocol may be, using a community with very few cases, but a substantial continuing threat.
“Nobody ever wants to be an experiment,” said Dr. Hannah Sanders, medical director of the Cordova Community Medical Center. “But, in some ways it is.”
Talk of a canceled season
Alaska has its own history of devastating impacts from disease, including the influenza pandemic of 1918 that led to widespread deaths, especially among Alaska Natives. In some native communities, such as Nome and Wales, more than half of the residents died.
Ms. Lange, the hotel proprietor, said she and other Alaska Natives have talked a lot in recent days about the 1918 outbreak and the risks of another pandemic. She said that while fishing was at the core of her family and community, she also had concerns about the ability of the city and the industry to hold back an outbreak as virulent as the coronavirus.
“It’s not easy to be critical of an industry we all love and are dependent on,” Ms. Lange said. “People have said they’ll never set foot again in our business.”
The discussion is happening in fishing towns all over Alaska, including Dillingham, the center of the salmon fishing fleet in Bristol Bay.
Hospital leaders at the Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation have requested that the fishing season remain closed, arguing that the arrival of thousands of people from around the world puts the community at risk. So far, the request has gone unheeded. The fishing season there is set to commence in June.
In Cordova, Mark Roye was one of the people who argued for a Copper River fishing season with only locals to avoid the risk of importing coronavirus cases from outsiders. He said that while the season would be prolonged, the proceeds could be divided among all of the fishery’s stakeholders, even those who could not participate.
That idea ultimately was rejected. Now Mr. Roye has taken his sailboat, stocked it with months of supplies and sailed 20 miles outside town, settling in for some long-term isolation on his boat. He said that he while the town had done a lot to prepare, he worried that it would not be enough.
“If anything goes wrong,” Mr. Roye said, “the threat to the rest of the salmon fishery around the state is going to be enormous.”
Flying a quarantine flag
Cordova’s strategy for keeping the virus at bay involves several strict protocols.
Workers arriving in town must be quarantined for 14 days — either in a facility or on a ship, with a yellow-and-black quarantine flag raised. They cannot go inside grocery stores. They have to have their temperatures taken twice a day and report any symptoms. Hand-washing facilities are available around the docks.
People in town must wear masks and are required to follow social distancing rules.
Mr. Koplin, the mayor, said he had been pleased with the level of compliance among the newly arriving fishing crews.
The first coronavirus case surfaced not with someone on a fishing boat but among the large group of workers who process the fish that are not sold fresh.
The company involved, Ocean Beauty Seafoods, said the employee tested negative in Seattle but then tested positive after arriving in Cordova. It is unclear where the person got infected, Mr. Koplin said, but testing of all of the people the worker was in contact with in the area has not identified anyone else with the illness.
Rich Wheeler, who runs a neighboring processing facility, 60° North Seafoods, said he had told his workers that they must remain on the campus for the entirety of their working time in Alaska and would be fired if they leave.
The scene in Cordova is much different than other years, with a slower pace and fewer people ahead of what is normally an energetic opening day for the Copper River season. Mr. Wheeler said companies did not want to be “part of the problem,” and would also face their own serious challenges if the virus were to start spreading in one of their plants.
“It would be pretty catastrophic,” he said.