Roughly 26,000 processing workers head to plants in Alaska each year, the bulk of them in the summertime. Many work the red salmon season out of Bristol Bay, the largest red salmon fishery in the world and the source of most of America’s wild-caught salmon.
Conditions in fish plants mirror those in meat-processing plants, with people living together and working long shifts in close quarters. Alaska put in place strict procedures and required monitoring, quarantining and testing out of concern that processing workers and fishermen, many who come from out of state, would spread the virus into Alaskan communities.
The plan largely worked and Alaska’s case total stayed low until July. But as cases began to spike in recent weeks, resident workers — not those from other states — brought the virus into fish plants, said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer. “It unfortunately has taken off pretty quickly,” she said. “It’s so hard to mitigate the spread once you get it in the plant.”
Alaska has had 20 coronavirus deaths and about 3,500 cases, according to a New York Times database.
At the Copper River Seafoods plant in Anchorage, 76 out of 135 people had tested positive as of Wednesday, Dr. Zink said. In Seward, a small town south of Anchorage, 139 out of 252 workers tested positive. At Alaska Glacier Seafoods, in Juneau, 62 out of 150 workers were positive. And the American Triumph, a factory trawler that docked in Dutch Harbor, had 85 positive cases out of the 119 people on board, she said.
But there have been no outbreaks at fish plants in Bristol Bay, where the season is wrapping up. Most workers there came from elsewhere and didn’t mingle with the locals, said Nicole Kimball, a fisheries analyst with the Pacific Seafood Processors Association. “The key there was a closed campus,” she said. ‘People took it very seriously to keep their doors closed.”
Outbreaks at plants force production to cease while facilities are cleaned and workers are tested, further pressing a salmon industry that analysts say is facing decreased restaurant demand and a glut in the retail sector. Processors are paying fishermen at Bristol Bay half as much per pound as they were last year, said Andy Wink, executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association.
That stings, he said. “It makes it hard to enjoy all the sacrifice people put in to make the season safe and successful.”