COVID-19 threatened Alaska’s fishermen. Here's how they persevered.

In the Bristol Bay fishing region, efforts developed in response to COVID-19 seem to have paid off.

By Ash Adams
photographs by Ash Adams
Published 16 Aug 2021, 11:30 BST
The Naknek River is 35-miles long and flows into Kvichak Bay, an arm of Bristol Bay, ...
The Naknek River is 35-miles long and flows into Kvichak Bay, an arm of Bristol Bay, host to the largest sockeye salmon run in the world.
Photograph by Ash Adams

Communities in this rural fishing region, site of the world’s largest sockeye salmon run that draws thousands of workers each year, are defined, in part, by their isolation. Everything is a plane ride or more away, including medical care, food, and supplies. The largest hospital in the region has little more than a dozen beds to serve a combined population of about 7,000.

So the threat of COVID-19 is worrisome in a place still haunted by the 1919 Spanish flu epidemic, which wiped out 30 to 40 percent of the population, historians estimate, leaving behind a generation of orphans.

Timothy Poole, safety officer coordinator for Silver Bay Seafoods, the largest industry employer in Naknek, works with Nurse Lawanda Pulley to do temperature checks on quarantined workers who had recently arrived from overseas. Silver Bay Seafoods, like other processors in the Bristol Bay region, operate as closed campuses, which means that once workers arrive, they are not permitted to go into the town or leave, a measure that was put in place during the 2020 season to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to local populations.
Photograph by Ash Adams
Thomas Tilden, First Chief of the Curyung Tribal Council and a commercial fisherman, poses for a portrait in his yard in Dillingham, Alaska. He was among local and tribal groups who organized and petitioned the Alaska government and industry officials for strict regulations for fishermen and processing plants. Tilden, who has been fishing since he was a toddler, remembers listening to elders talk about the 1919 Spanish flu epidemic, which was thorough and ruthless in its devastation, leaving behind many orphans in the region.
Photograph by Ash Adams
The LFS boatyard in Naknek in June. Last year, fishermen had to call local stores for parts and food, and rely on runners to bring them the materials. This year, fishermen are able to walk around the yard and are not strictly confined to their boats.
Photograph by Ash Adams

Moreover, Alaska Natives and Indigenous people have been disproportionately affected by the current pandemic. Alaska Natives have died at four times the rate of whites due to complications from the coronavirus. Nationwide, a higher percentage of Alaska Natives and Indigenous peoples have died from COVID-19 than any other demographic.

Thomas Tilden, First Chief of Curyung Tribal Council in Dillingham and a commercial fisherman, remembers hearing elders when he was young talk about the devastating toll of the 1919 epidemic. “When they talked about it, and they very rarely did talk about it, they’d talk about it in hushed tones. You could tell that it really scared them.”

Tilden, now 68, says that there was a period of regrouping following the wide-scale loss, a time of trying to relearn crafts that were lost with the dead. “It wasn’t just a pandemic that hit them.”

View from the small boat harbor in Dillingham, which opens into the Wood River, a tributary of the Nushagak River.
Photograph by Ash Adams
Susie Jenkins-Brito stacks nets into bags before the start of the season. Jenkins-Brito is a nurse and a commercial fisherman. The pandemic was top of mind in 2020, when it was unclear as to whether the fishery would open for salmon fishing as usual given the community fear of a COVID-19 outbreak.
Photograph by Ash Adams
A cemetery in Naknek, Alaska, where nets and photographs of fishing adorn some of the graves. Naknek’s commercial fishing industry started in the late 1800’s.
Photograph by Ash Adams

Combating COVID-19

Before the 2020 fishing season kicked off and thousands of people travelled to Bristol Bay, there was fear among the local population that history would repeat itself. Citing the 1919 epidemic, limited medical facilities, and outbreaks in the meat factories across the U.S., local and tribal groups organized and petitioned the Alaska government and industry officials for strict regulations for fishermen and processing plants. Tribal councils and the Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation, without assurance that the season would be regulated to protect the local community, called for the fishery’s closure.

But with many other industries hurting in a state largely built on seasonal industries, closing salmon fishing season— which is estimated by a recent study to bring in $2 billion (£1.4 billion) annually—would have resulted in a wide-reaching economic blow.

Safety protocols were finally agreed on just weeks before the start of the season. Testing, travel regulations, quarantining, and masking were mandated, and the measures were put in place in all areas of the fishery. Processing plants operated strictly as closed campuses. Fishermen were quarantined on their boats in the boatyards. Once a crew was at sea, it stayed at sea; there was no returning to the docks or sending people into town. The port was closed to the public—as it continued to be this year. When a crew aboard a fishing vessel contracted COVID-19 in Dillingham, the boat was hauled into the boatyard and surrounded with yellow caution tape like a crime scene.

With all the safety measures in place, it was just a matter of waiting.

“We were waiting for the big burst to happen,” says Tilden. “But it didn’t happen." There was not a single documented case of COVID-19 in the local Dillingham population until the Autumn of 2020. And only a few cases emerged during the season in nearby Naknek, a major hub for the fishery.

"By July 20, I was like ‘that was okay. We made it,” Tilden says. “We know we can make it now.’ It’s like the first person that crosses a river after it jams up. That person makes it, you know you’re going to make it, too. What a feeling.”

Record fishing season

This year, with the introduction of vaccines and after the low viral spread within the fishing fleet last year, restrictions were relaxed. Mask mandates in both Naknek and Dillingham were lifted, and fishermen were able to leave the boatyard and go into town. Children played in the boatyards. In Dillingham, fisherman Meghan Gervais’ children sold lemonade. The processing plants continue to operate as closed campuses, which means that once employees arrive at the plant, they are not allowed to leave.

At Silver Bay Seafoods, the largest processing plant in Naknek, with a population of roughly 800, workers from overseas are vaccinated upon arrival, kept in quarantine housing for 14 days, and participate in twice-daily temperature checks. Fencing installed last year surrounds the plants along with myriads of no-trespassing and closed campus signs. A trailer parked at a gas station in town serves as a COVID-19 testing site, and groups of workers are tested each week.

Alaska is now again on high alert as the virus blooms throughout the state. But Bristol Bay’s 2021 sockeye run, which ran from the end of June through July, pulled in more than 63 million fish—a record harvest.

Rubis and Margaret Gervais play near their mother's boat in the PAF Marine Services boatyard while she works on getting ready for the season. Gervais says this year feels more normal than last year, when the children couldn’t visit with all of their neighboring boats.
Photograph by Ash Adams
During the pandemic, conversations about the 1919 Spanish flu epidemic, which ravaged communities in the Bristol Bay region, were a part of the discourse about whether or not to open up the lucrative commercial fishing season. Bristol Bay implemented strict protocols at the insistence of its communities, and there was not one documented case of COVID-19 in the local population in Dillingham until the fall. Statewide, Alaska Natives have the highest death rate from COVID-19 of any other group.
Photograph by Ash Adams
A four-wheeler drives down a road in Naknek, Alaska. During the second season of the pandemic, locals say that the streets are still much quieter than they would have been in years past.
Photograph by Ash Adams
South Carolina Captain Taylor Kirkman (right) works on his boat, the “Jezeriah,” with Everett Lee (left), his crewman and long-time best friend who now lives in Hawaii. Commercial fishing operates in tight quarters, which is why if one person contracts COVID-19, the entire boat must quarantine aboard.
Photograph by Ash Adams
Meghan Gervais cleans up after feeding her children, Margaret and Rubis, in their locker in the PAF boatyard.
Photograph by Ash Adams
Nighttime in Naknek, where in the summer months the days are long. Near the solstice, the sun does not set until close to midnight, and even then, the sky doesn’t fully darken before the sun rises a few hours later.
Photograph by Ash Adams

Ash Adams is a photojournalist and documentary photographer based in Anchorage, Alaska.




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