Updated: Slow going for the Copper River opener

Seafood processors, Copper River Marketing Association, honor health care workers with gourmet dinner

Fishing vessels navigate the waters outside Cordova Harbor. (May 12, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

A 12-hour opener marking the start of the 2020 Copper River commercial salmon season proved slow going, with a catch of 1,650 Chinook and 1,500 sockeye salmon, down from 2,300 kings and 20,400 reds in the 2019 opener.

The second 12-hour opener for the Copper River and the first of the season for the Bering River are set for Monday, May 18.

Prices for the catch from the opener were down, due to lack of demand during the COVID-19 pandemic, with upscale restaurants that normally feature Copper River entrees following the start of the fishery still closed.

Even with fewer fishermen on the grounds, it was tough going. One veteran harvester said his 12-hour effort produced a total of five fish.

Worries over a potential low price for the prized fish, coupled with concerns that the novel coronavirus pandemic might stop the fishery lowered the competition for the fish, said Cordova Mayor Clay Koplin, who calculated that as much of one fourth of the fleet never left the harbor.

The combination of traveling to and from Alaska during a pandemic also presents challenges for about 30 percent of the fleet that lives out of state, plus the fact that a lot of the harvesters are in the high-risk group, being over 60 years old, he said.

Still, when the opener ended, there was enough to load onto an Alaska Air Cargo flight to Seattle to move on to grocery stores nationwide and to honor more than 200 health care workers at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle with a gourmet seafood dinner.

Alaska Airlines, Trident Seafoods, Ocean Beauty Seafoods, Copper River Seafoods, the Copper River Marketing Association and famed Seattle chef Tom Douglas collaborated to bring dinner to the health care workers on the frontline of medical care for pandemic patients.

Also in the works for Sunday, May 17, was a “Grilling for Good” fundraiser in which Douglas and Trident Seafoods were teamed up to prepare grilled Copper River sockeye entrees available for purchase through the Tom Douglas website, tomdouglas.securetree.com/Events/Grilling-for-Good-Copper-River-Salmon-Meal with all proceeds to be donated to Food Lifeline.

Seattle’s famed Pike Place Fish Market was advertising Copper River king fillets for $74.99 a pound, whole Copper River kings for $659.99 apiece, Copper River sockeye fillets for $49.99 a pound and whole Copper River reds for $174.99.

Costco stores in Anchorage still had plenty of previously frozen fillets of sockeye salmon for sale at $9.99 a pound, plus fresh whole Copper River reds for $9.99 a pound.

Whether more restaurants will be back in business in the coming weeks, as cities and states relax restrictions to keep the pandemic from spreading is still in question.

The gloomy economy aside, the good news was that Cordova to date has held its own against the virus. The only person to test positive for COVID-19 in Cordova is a seafood industry worker who came to work for Ocean Beauty Seafoods after passing a temperature test in Seattle, then tested positive in Cordova while still doing his 14-day quarantine. The patient was retested, again showing that he had the virus, but has physically shown no signs of illness, Koplin said.

There was more good news from federal and state medical officials who visited Cordova on Wednesday, May 13, to see the city’s medical facilities and talk with local officials and said they would support Cordova with whatever medical equipment is needed the mayor said.

The entourage included Dr. Alexander Eastman, senior medical officer at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer; Alaska Director of Public Health Heidi Hedberg, and Dr. Robert Onders, medical director of community and health systems improvement with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

Meanwhile Cordova medical officials have increased the rate of testing for the virus in the city’s business community.

Prized Copper River kings, like this 38-pounder held by Billy Green of Copper River Seafoods, were hard to come by during the 12-hour opener marking the start of the 2020 fishery. Preliminary data compiled by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game put the king catch at 1,650, compared to 2,300 caught on opening day a year ago. Photo by Margaret Bauman/for The Cordova Times

“They are testing every day and there are no positive cases yet,” Koplin said.

State health officials on Saturday, May 16, confirmed one positive case of COVID-19 in Dillingham, identified as an out-of-state individual who arrived recently to work for Trident Seafoods. According to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, the individual was one of several workers quarantined in the same location who were tested for COVID-19 at the end of their 14-day quarantine.  Although that individual is doing well and does not require hospitalization, Trident arranged to transport him out of the community.

Remaining workers at that quarantine location have tested negative, but will quarantine for another 14 days to ensure that the virus does not spread into the community.

The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services reported four new cases of the virus on Sunday, May 17, including two in Anchorage, one in Juneau and one in Homer.  The Juneau case is an employee at the Lemon Creek Correctional Center. The statewide total now stands at 396, with 344 recovered. A total of 43 people have been hospitalized and 10 have died.

Infected nonresidents, who are listed separately, now total 10.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy said he would extend the 14-day self-quarantine requirement for everyone traveling into Alaska, including returning residents, to June 2, but said that the need for the quarantine mandate would continue to be reevaluated on a daily basis.

Mayors Ethan Berkowitz of Anchorage and Beth Weldon of Juneau urged the governor to extend the quarantine mandate. The governor had said that he expected more cases of the virus as the state continues to reopen its economy.