Thousands of wild sockeye and Chinook salmon are making their way north, as the commercial fishing fleet braces for the famed Copper River opener, in a year the seafood industry will long remember for harvesting and processing during a global pandemic.
“We are looking forward to the start of the season with cautious optimism,” said Chelsea Haisman, executive director of Cordova District Fishermen United. “There’s certainly always energy this time of year — looking ahead with hope, and most fishermen can’t wait to get back out on the water.
“The Chinook forecast looks great, and of course, we hope that the sockeye will return in force,” Haisman said. “In general, we expect that participation will be similar to prior years.”
“I’m optimistic,” echoed veteran harvester Jerry McCune president of CDFU, even as he acknowledged that nobody has a clue what the price to fishermen will be.
Efforts to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has infected millions of people worldwide, including all 50 of the United States, have had a drastic impact on marketing conditions, what with closure of restaurants, food service and educational facilities. Even as some states, including Alaska, are beginning to allow the reopening of restaurants and other businesses, the demand for seafood is not its normal self.
There are also numerous precautionary advisories and mandates in place, requiring 14-day quarantines, extensive care to hand washing, social distancing and deep cleaning which will cost the seafood industry overall millions of dollars.
CDFU has sent letters to all its members, telling them to follow all the recommendations “so we can have a season and keep the community and the fishermen safe,” McCune said.
Permits for the fishery include 536 drift gillnet, 32 setnet and 234 seiner, but how many permit holders will participate this season is still an unknown.
Overall industry questions about markets notwithstanding, Rich Wheeler of 60° North Seafoods in Cordova said he is optimistic about the upcoming season.
“I’m a fisherman, so I am always optimistic. That’s all we have is optimism,” he said.
The company, now in its third season in business, has wholesale clients all over the Lower 48 and also sells directly to consumers nationwide.
We do six-ounce frozen portions of Copper River sockeye and eight-ounce frozen portions of Copper River kings, and also one-pound king and eight-ounce sockeye packages, he said.
The response so far this year from retail customers has been great, Wheeler said.
“People are really excited,” he said. “We are so busy it is everything we can do to keep up right now.”
The company normally employees 18 to 25 people, about 70 percent of which travel to Cordova from Washington, Oregon and California, but will have a few less this year in order to abide by social distancing mandates. All the out-of-towners are being quarantined in the company bunk house for 14 days upon arrival.
Wheeler said he was clear with all employees that once they arrive, they will be confined to company property for the duration of their employment this season.
Cordova now coping with its first confirmed case of COVID-19 infection, a seafood processing worker for Ocean Beauty Seafoods who arrived two weeks ago from the Lower 48, but did not test positive until the evening of May 5. Ocean Beauty, like all other processors, is testing all employees for the virus. The individual is now being cared for medically in isolation.
The seafood industry overall has been toeing the line to follow state and local mandates aimed at stopping the spread of the virus within Alaska.