It’s no business as usual for fishing industry

Major processors make health and safety of employees, harvesters, community a top priority

Fishing vessels docked in Cordova Harbor. (March 20, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

For Alaska’s commercial fisheries industry in 2020, things will hardly be business as usual.

Reports of the first case of novel coronavirus in the state prompted processors to get to work developing plant and vessel response plans in consultation with medical experts to assure the health and safety of employees, harvesters, communities they work in and the fish they will process by the ton.

“Everyone is working on it on a regular basis,” said Norm Van Vactor, president and chief executive officer of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. in Dillingham. “It is literally a plan in progress. We are moving forward with a positive attitude (but) nobody is in La La Land.”

BBEDC is a 50 percent owner in Ocean Beauty Seafoods, a privately held limited-liability company that has been processing seafood for 110 years.

“Our number one priority is protecting the health and safety of our community, our fishermen and our employees,” said Rick Isaacson, regional manager for Trident Seafoods. “We understand that it is a privilege to operate in our community and we recognize that this season will not be business as usual. Trident has accordingly adopted proactive steps to implement best practices that will protect Cordova residents’ health and safety, minimize health risks to our employees and fishermen, and maintain vital food production during this time.”

As of Wednesday, April 1, Trident was finalizing Cordova-specific protocols to address plant operations, limits on employee interactions with the community and fishermen, and logistics of helping fishermen work this season while adhering to local and state travel mandates.

Isaacson noted that the situation is rapidly changing and that as it evolves, Trident will maintain open lines of communication with Cordova.

Ocean Beauty, a major processor of finfish, groundfish and shellfish, also is gearing up for the wild salmon fisheries opening in May, as are several other major and smaller processors.

In a May 18 letter to its fleet, Ocean Beauty President and chief executive officer Mark Palmer said “we have been in business since 1910 and have never missed a salmon season in time of war, pandemic or for any other reason.”

“The salmon business is our core business and is in our DNA. We are purchasing supplies as usual and will be processing salmon this season if it is humanly possible,” Palmer said.

Ocean Beauty is currently operating at high capacity at is Kodiak facility on bottom fish and so far, has addressed all concerns as they arise, he said.

Entities representing thousands of commercial fish harvesters, including many out-of-state fishermen who will soon be heading north, are busy advising their fishermen about state mandates they must adhere to in order to work in Alaska this year.

Other major entities, including At-Sea Processors, have been working for weeks to put in place preventive measures to assure the health and safety of its processing partners and products they are producing this season. The processor industry noted that, as the Centers for Disease Control has stated, there is no risk of contracting COVID-19 from any food, including seafood.

Meanwhile a number of coastal fisheries communities are taking steps to assure the safety of their residents before the fishing season begins, including mandates requiring anyone arriving from out of town to quarantine themselves for 14 days. Other communities have put in place or are discussing limits on all nonessential travel.