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COVID-19 and Fishing in the Last Frontier: What’s on the Line?

by Nov 9, 2020COVID-19, Fisheries, Magazine

Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association

How one of Alaska’s toughest industries is wading through the pandemic

For Alaska’s Commercial fishermen, remaining in business during a pandemic comes with a set of unprecedented problems including the need to minimize this new risk and disruption in key markets for Alaska seafood—on top of already significant pre-COVID-19 challenges.

Though Alaska seafood industry harvest numbers were not significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a year-over-year decline in harvest value, according to a McDowell Group report.

The decline in value connected to the pandemic is primarily tied to operating and transportation costs and significant devastation to food service markets.

“In March, when the pandemic started to erupt in the US, the fishing industry realized immediately we were going to need to put safety precautions in place in order to have successful and safe seasons,” United Fishermen of Alaska (UFA) Executive Director Frances Leach says.

“Alaska seafood processors have spent tens of millions of dollars implementing proactive health and safety protocols to ensure we are minimizing risks to Alaska communities, protecting our seasonal and resident workforce, and maintaining operations.”

—Chris Barrows, President, Pacific Seafood Processors Association

“With so many fishermen and processor workers flocking to Alaska during the summer, the potential for mass outbreaks coming from within the industry was high.”

Leach says UFA became a clearinghouse for COVID-19 updates as its team worked with processors, harvesters, medical experts, and the state to help the industry comply with Health Mandate 17, which focused on protective measures for independent commercial fishing vessels.

“We worked hard to keep the fleet up-to-date on what they needed to know, whether they were a member of UFA or not. Fishermen are known for keeping the best fishing spots to themselves and being elusive when it comes to giving up information,” Leach says. “The pandemic taught us there was no time for that—we needed to come together and share whatever information we could with each other. We were all in a boat together, patching the holes so we could stay afloat and have a season. I was really proud of our industry and what we accomplished in such a short time.”

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Alaska Business December 2020 Cover

December 2020

The Pandemic’s Impact

The biggest impact on most harvesters was not costs related to COVID-19 safety precautions but the state of the market during the pandemic, Leach says. In general, fish prices were down while processing costs increased.

“Typically, in poor return years, fishermen can rely on a decent price for their product,” says Leach. “This year, there was hardly any fish, and they were getting paid peanuts for their product.”

For some harvesters, the season was so bad that they quit mid-season to go back to their winter jobs early, Leach says.

Remaining in business during a pandemic comes with a set of unprecedented problems including the need to minimize this new risk and disruption in key markets for Alaska seafood on top of already significant pre-COVID-19 challenges. —

Seafood processors operated in 2020 under a State of Alaska mandate specific to processing plants and processing vessels (Health Mandate 10, App. 1). “Minimizing the risk of COVID-19 transmission and outbreaks has certainly increased operating costs,” Pacific Seafood Processors Association President Chris Barrows says.

“Alaska seafood processors have spent tens of millions of dollars implementing proactive health and safety protocols to ensure we are minimizing risks to Alaska communities, protecting our seasonal and resident workforce, and maintaining operations.”

The costs Alaska seafood processing facilities face in managing the pandemic are myriad, ranging from hiring medical companies to provide daily screening to modifying processing lines to secure proper social distancing, Barrows explains.

“Fishermen are known for keeping the best fishing spots to themselves and being elusive when it comes to giving up information. The pandemic taught us there was no time for that—we needed to come together and share whatever information we could with each other. We were all in a boat together, patching the holes so we could stay afloat and have a season. I was really proud of our industry and what we accomplished in such a short time.”

—Frances Leach, Executive Director, United Fishermen of Alaska

“Our members’ efforts have been science-driven, resulting in community and workforce protection plans that were reviewed and approved by the State of Alaska in April, shared with our community partners and local health organizations, and re-reviewed by an additional team of University of Alaska epidemiologists in June,” Barrows says.

Pacific Seafood Processors Association member companies built their COVID-19 response plans around two core components: a robust entry program and aggressive plant-specific protocols. Plans had to evolve through the year as experts learned more about the virus.

Neither of those is a cheap process, Barrows says. Employees coming to Alaska went through a 14-day quarantine program with testing oftentimes both early and near the end of the period. During this time, companies shouldered the cost of hotels, food, and daily medical screening.

“In communities where it is possible to have a ‘closed campus,’ that tactic has been implemented and enforced to further reduce risk,” Barrows says, noting that the majority of shoreside processing plants in Alaska are in remote, isolated communities, but many have both a resident and non-resident workforce.

“Taken together, quarantines and in-plant protocols have been largely successful, to date, in preventing large scale outbreaks in our plants and, equally important, minimizing risk to local communities and not stressing the local healthcare capacity.”

Barrows explains that representatives from the seafood processing industry have been holding weekly calls with the state’s public health officials and local community leaders. “Together we have partnered to implement stringent and effective protocols to minimize risk to our employees and transmission into surrounding communities, while still allowing vital food production to continue,” says Barrows.

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The Price of Uncertainty

Though no full account of the exact direct COVID-19 costs incurred by processors as of the end of August are available, McDowell Group estimates that at least $50 million has been spent between offshore and onshore facilities.

In addition to increased costs, the pandemic has also boosted uncertainty within the industry about being able to secure a sufficient workforce, Barrows says.

The Alaska seafood industry employs a significant number of people. About 58,700 workers were directly employed by the industry, earning nearly $1.7 billion in wages during the 2017-2018 period, according to the McDowell Group’s 2020 report The Economic Value of Alaska’s Seafood Industry.

“An estimated 37,700 full-time equivalent jobs were supported in the state with wages of $2.1 billion, including multiplier impacts that result from the industry circulating money in Alaska’s economy,” the report states.

During that same period, the industry contributed $5.6 billion in economic output to Alaska’s economy, including multiplier effects.

Such multipliers can include anything from a captain hiring a diesel mechanic to fix their engine to a Bristol Bay processor chartering a flight to get workers into the region to all these stakeholders spending money on groceries and supplies for their households, says Dan Lesh, a senior analyst for McDowell Group.

“These added costs for health and safety purposes are significant and unique costs due directly to COVID-19, but they are necessary in order to operate and protect the food supply chain, the workforce, and Alaska communities,” Barrows says.

But the pandemic is only one of several factors that has affected the seafood industry this year, Lesh says.

“Non-COVID-19 factors include a weak salmon harvest, ocean changes due to climate change, and weakness in some markets, such as for salmon, going into this summer,” Lesh says.

Though the infamous 2015 warm water anomaly in the Gulf of Alaska, also known as “The Blob,” appears to have been an outlier, ocean temperatures in Alaska continue to be unusually warm.

Alaska General Seafoods has closed its campus to visitors as a COVID-19 protective measure.

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How much the changes in water temperatures have disrupted the ocean’s food web isn’t clear, says Bert Lewis, the central region supervisor for the Division of Commercial Fisheries at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

“If you look at Bristol Bay, where the juvenile fish migrate out into the Bering Sea, they have continued to have strong returns, over 50 million sockeye, every year for the past six years,” Lewis says. “Whereas Southcentral Alaska, where the fish migrate out into the North Gulf of Alaska, where the warm water is more prevalent, we continue to see disrupted patterns in salmon productivity with smaller returns, smaller size of fish, younger fish [returning].”

The trend of smaller and younger fish returning to streams and rivers in Southcentral Alaska is seen across species, including Chinook, sockeye, and chum. Chinook salmon returns used to be dominated by fish that had spent four years in the ocean. Now, it’s mostly three-year fish with more two-year fish also returning, resulting in smaller fish.

“Chinook salmon returns continue to be very weak. Salmon, in general, were under forecast and weak. However, there are some areas that did well, like Bristol Bay, again, which had another big year,” Lewis says.

Preliminary in-season harvest estimates for all salmon is slightly more than 113 million fish. Pink and sockeye catches led the charge with nearly 58 million fish and more than 45 million fish caught respectively. The Chinook harvest rate came in around 247,000 for the season.

“All indicators are that there’s something in the marine environment driving these trends. It’s hard to pin down what it is. But if you look at the ocean temperatures related to climate change, and how it’s probably disrupting the food web, that’s the likely source but exactly what it is is unknown.”

Lewis was part of a team that recently published a scientific paper in Nature Communications titled Recent Declines in Salmon Body Size Impact Ecosystems and Fisheries.

“We need the state to recognize Alaska’s commercial fishing industry is Alaska’s number one direct private sector employer, employing over 60,000 people and paying $146 million in federal, state, and local taxes and fees, exporting over $3.4 billion in seafood. We are important contributors to the State of Alaska.”

—Frances Leach, Executive Director, United Fishermen of Alaska

“Alaska is widely considered a stronghold of intact, functioning salmon–people ecosystems, largely free of the factors that have severely depressed salmon abundances elsewhere, such as over-harvest, habitat-loss, net pen aquaculture [prohibited by law in Alaska], dams, and water diversion,” the report says. “However, accumulating evidence from local and Indigenous knowledge suggests that adult salmon body sizes are decreasing, including in Alaska where salmon provide critical support for ecosystems and people.”

The paper notes that not only does the body size of salmon indicate its role in reproductive fitness, physiology, demography, and predator/prey dynamics but also significantly impacts the fishes’ economic value.

When compared to salmon maturing before 1990, the reduced size of returning Chinook salmon after 2010 resulted in a 21 percent drop in fisheries value and a 26 percent drop in meals for rural people, the paper explains.

“Downsizing of organisms is a global concern, and current trends may pose substantial risks for nature and people,” the paper states.

Commercial salmon fisheries in 2019 harvested slightly less than 207 million fish with an estimated preliminary ex-vessel value of approximately $658 million, according to an Alaska Department of Fish and Game report. The ex-vessel value marked a 10 percent increase compared to 2018.

However, Alaska’s seafood industry goes well beyond salmon, which comprised about 37 percent of ex-vessel value for the 2017-2018 year, according to the McDowell Group study. Making up about 73 percent of the rest of the ex-vessel value were pollock, crab, Pacific cod, halibut, sablefish, and rockfish.

Barrows points out that the state’s diversification of fisheries is essential to the overall success of the industry.

“All fisheries are important to the seafood processing industry in Alaska, because both the volume and diversity of species result in being able to serve many different markets and help keep businesses viable in the face of changing markets and natural fluctuations inherent in wild fisheries,” Barrows says.

“When one species’ harvest is down, you may rely on other species to fill in; when one market is poor, you try to move to other markets or put more effort into development of new markets. In addition, every region in Alaska depends on different key species.

“Statewide, however, Alaska pollock and salmon comprise the majority of both volume and value. Pretty consistently, wild Alaska pollock, salmon, and various crab species combined make up 70 percent of the volume and a slightly higher percentage of value annually.”

With few exceptions, export prices for Alaska seafood are lower than in 2019, according to McDowell Group. The largest increase was a 14 percent jump for canned sockeye, while Pacific cod, sablefish, and sockeye prices fell by 9 percent, 14 percent, and 14 percent, respectively. However, the report does note that there is a trend toward increased exports later in the year, which will require further assessment as 2020 comes to an end.

“Restaurant closures have obviously affected the foodservice market, leading both seafood consumers and purveyors to look at other ways to purchase, share, and enjoy seafood,” Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute Communications Director Ashley Heimbigner says.

Heimbigner notes that the United States is seeing increased retail sales of frozen, canned, and even fresh seafood.

“Supply chains are shifting in some areas from food service to retail sales to meet the increased demand for frozen and shelf stable seafood. We continue to see a steady demand at retail as more and more consumers cook at home,” Heimbigner says. “However, the food service space is also now providing creative grab-and-go, take-out, and outdoor dining options in response to the pandemic.”

Staying Afloat

With the pandemic still wreaking havoc, the seafood industry isn’t in a position to relax.

“Continued vigilance and attention to detail in implementing health and safety protocols going forward will remain critically important,” Barrows says. “The industry is taking these COVID-19 costs out of pocket at the same time we are facing severe disruption in key markets and multiple pre-COVID-19 cost burdens. The global pandemic has had serious impacts on markets and seafood trade, especially products destined for the food service industry.”

Despite the challenge faced by the industry, Heimbigner says there “are strong opportunities” for Alaska seafood.

To support the health concerns of permanent residents, several local artists created the “Health is Wealth” campaign that included signage, clothing, and a social media component.

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“Currently, we are watching dining and shopping trends and looking to work with new channels that seem likely to last beyond the pandemic,” Heimbigner says. “People around the world are looking for quality, value, nutrition, and traceability, all innate characteristics of Alaska’s seafood portfolio. The broad range of species and product forms—from fresh king crab to frozen Alaska pollock burgers—offers options for any budget or cooking ability and to meet diverse market preferences.”

Leach is adamant the industry must have higher fish returns and higher prices in 2021 to recover from the damages from the pandemic.

“We need financial assistance to make up for lost wages, which we are slowly getting,” she says.

To date, limited CARES Act funds (via PPP loans) have been accessible to the Alaska seafood processing industry, in contrast to other industries, Barrows says, adding that financial assistance is needed to manage extra costs incurred by operating through the pandemic.

“We need the state to recognize Alaska’s commercial fishing industry is Alaska’s number one direct private sector employer, employing over 60,000 people and paying $146 million in federal, state, and local taxes and fees, exporting over $3.4 billion in seafood. We are important contributors to the State of Alaska,” says Leach.

Alaska Business Magazine December 2020 Cover

In This Issue

What’s Worked, What Hasn’t, and What’s Next

December 2020

The novel coronavirus pandemic has required healthcare professional to take a long, hard look at our healthcare systems to determine what’s helping—and what’s hindering—their ability to deliver care. Alaska's Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Anne Zink, provides her insights on how Alaska needs to move forward.

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