Commentary: Harvesters remain resilient in facing economic challenges of COVID-19

A fishing vessel near Cordova Harbor. (May 14, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

By Tyson Fick
For The Cordova Times

No one reading this needs to be reminded that we are in uncharted waters as thousands of Alaska fishermen set out to sea for the salmon season. As a fisherman with two young boys, I felt a deep sense of both privilege and responsibility as I set my nets in the glacier-fed waters of Taku Inlet in late June.

Most fishing seasons the biggest questions are: Will the salmon come early or late? Will they be swimming deep or along the shoreline? This summer the questions are: Will Alaska’s independent fishermen financially survive the coronavirus? Will there be buyers willing to pay a decent price for their catch? Will fishermen get access to the personal protective equipment and testing that they need to avoid the spread of coronavirus? Will the long-fought Pebble mine be permitted while Bristol Bay’s fishing fleet is out risking their lives?

Realizing that spring in 2020 was like no other, here at SalmonState we felt it was important to reach out while hunkering down. We did that via SalmonState’s Spring Fishermen Survey. What we heard from the nearly 800 commercial fishermen who responded is while there are new concerns when it comes to their fishing operations, there are a couple of bedrock issues that continue to be priorities for those who make their living from the ocean.

Fishermen were clear about their needs. First, they need immediate assistance to survive the financial storm wrought by COVID-19. Secondly, they are adamant that they must take steps to keep Alaska’s coastal communities safe, and coming in a strong third was protection of clean water, intact watersheds and marine habitats, so that when we are back to “normal,” we have an intact and healthy resource to ensure fishing and jobs for decades to come.

Despite being considered essential workers, Alaska’s fishermen are most concerned about losing income this fishing season. Entire markets, e.g. food service, have vanished overnight, leaving fishermen without buyers and market prices half of what they were last year for some species. Fishermen shared in the survey that they plan to recover lost income by fishing longer, fishing alone and deferring boat maintenance. In other words, fishermen are paring down to only the bare essentials. And even then, many will still be cutting it tight.

A vast majority of survey respondents also said that they’re concerned about the spread of COVID-19 in local fishing communities. In their responses, fishermen were adamant about taking steps to keep Alaska’s communities safe and were equally adamant about needing the government to help provide testing, PPE, and clear health mandates. Fishermen want to ensure that their crew, their neighbors and their families and friends all have what they need to stay safe and healthy this summer.

The final theme that emerged was the fact that fishermen are deeply concerned about the protection of Alaska’s salmon habitat. This was a top concern for fishermen before COVID-19 and remains a top concern even in the middle of a pandemic. Fishermen are seeing increasingly urgent threats to the habitat that our fisheries depend on, and we should be listening to them and paying attention. Of particular concern is the proposed Pebble mine in Bristol Bay’s headwaters, a mine that fishermen have been fighting to stop for more than a decade. In the survey, fishermen were unanimous in their cry for decision-makers to stop the Pebble mine and to not allow bad policy and management decisions from moving forward while fishermen are off the grid fishing. We need our state and federal officials to be not only our eyes and ears this season, but also a voice for us and the wild fish that Alaska benefits from.

Amid all the uncertainty, one thing that we do know is that Alaskans are resilient, and fishermen in particular are tough and resourceful. However, the impacts of the coronavirus on Alaska’s fishing industry will be long-lasting and far-reaching and we are going to need support from all levels of government to ensure that Alaska’s single-largest private sector employer stays afloat and Alaska’s lands and waters remain some of the most productive on the planet in order for us to be able to continue to provide wild, sustainable seafood for the world.

Tyson Fickworks as a salmon evangelist for SalmonState. Aside from sport and commercial fishing, he has worked in the Alaska Legislature, the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development as legislative liaison, and as the communications director at the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.