COVID-19 in the Pacific Northwest Fishing Industry
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Pacific Northwest commercial fishing industry, together with state and local officials, have drafted rigorous protocols to protect the industry and the communities where they work. The first major coronavirus outbreak in the fishing industry occurred on a Seattle-based American Seafoods trawler, the American Dynasty, where 92 out of the 126 crew members tested positive for COVID-19. This news shook the Pacific Northwest fishing industry and came at the same time that meat processing plants across the U.S. were reporting similar outbreaks.
The rapid spread of COVID-19 on the American Dynasty showed how quickly the disease could spread on board a fishing vessel. It is a semi-enclosed environment where fishermen share bathrooms, sleeping quarters, and work side by side every day. Adding to the stress is the fact that the pandemic is happening as thousands of workers in the fishing industry are traveling up to Alaska from out-of-state because summer is the fishing industry’s busiest season. Some, including the CEO of Bristol Bay’s regional health corporation, called for Alaska to cancel this year’s season, but the state pushed ahead.
To ensure that the fishing season can continue, seafood companies and government officials are working hard to create and enforce safety measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus and keep the community and the workers safe. The State of Alaska issued a mandate on March 11th (revised June 5th) detailing the standards that independent commercial fishing must adhere to.
Under the mandate, crew members traveling to Alaska must immediately go to the location where they will quarantine for two weeks. While traveling to their quarantine location, fishermen must wear a mask. Workers are permitted to quarantine on a vessel and can fish during this time, as long as they restrict contact with other ships and people onshore. During the quarantine, the seamen must have their temperature checked twice a day and undergo physical and verbal health screenings. After the quarantine has ended, crew members can only leave their vessels for essential purposes. Examples of essential purposes include emergency medical services and grocery shopping.
Per the mandate, if a fisherman displays COVID-19 symptoms, that individual must wear a cloth mask and stay in a private room with separate bathroom facilities. Realistically, this is almost impossible on smaller fishing vessels. If the symptomatic individual cannot be isolated, the entire ship must be put under a 14-day quarantine.
It is critical that these policies are successful in preventing the spread of coronavirus because rural Alaskan communities have very limited health care resources. A COVID-19 outbreak could completely overwhelm the health care system in these communities. For example, the city of Dillingham’s hospital has no intensive care unit and only two ventilators.