Every summer, the vast watershed of winding streams and rivers that flow into the easternmost arm of the Bering Sea become a magnet for homing salmon. And for the scores of daring men and women — more than 10,000 in all — who pour into the remote region of Bristol Bay, Alaska, to take their shot at scoring big paydays as seasonal fishermen and industry workers.
This year's rush, wedged in the middle of a pandemic, will be more dangerous than ever, though. The bunkhouses and boats that house the fishermen are tightly packed — just the sort of environment where the coronavirus thrives. The seasonal workers will face a mandatory 14-day quarantine when they enter the state, but locals fear that won't be enough to keep the virus in check.
"It's a migrant work camp, basically — the reality of that is what makes it so dangerous," said Katherine Carscallen, a commercial fisherman and boat captain from Bristol Bay, which supplies half the world's wild sockeye salmon. "It is hard to imagine how we are going to pull this off without having some major outbreaks among the fishermen alone and among the processing workers. It's a huge risk."
U.S. fishing hits full swing over summer months, and there are nascent signs of trouble as outbreaks pop up in hubs like Alaska, Oregon and Washington. The infections come just as Americans have been loading up on seafood at grocery stores. In a twist all too reflective of current times, consumers turned to ocean indulgences like shrimp and crab in the wake of the U.S. meat-industry crisis that saw COVID-19 shutter beef and pork plants.
Now sickness in the seafood industry is the latest threat to America's food supply.
Food workers, who have been deemed essential employees at businesses that mostly stayed open during the pandemic, have seen some of the worst virus outbreaks of any industry outside health care. Thousands of employees at plants that process meat, fruit, vegetables and dairy have fallen sick, and dozens have died.
On top of of the human suffering, it's also dealt a blow to consumers. Grocery stores rationed meat buying after plant closures, and shortages for other foods are possible with outbreaks reported in at least 60 plants outside the meat industry. Meanwhile, farm workers are also falling ill, which could trigger a labor crunch during the harvest season for fruits and vegetables.
In Alaska, the Bristol Bay Area Health Corp. on Tuesday reported the fifth COVID-19 case for the region, with an independent fisherman falling ill. The far-flung corner of southwest Alaska, only reachable by plane or boat, was virus free until seasonal workers started arriving. Now it seems nearly impossible that infections won't keep increasing as the waterways start to burst with life.
Other Alaskan fishing communities have also seen an uptick in cases. Meanwhile in Oregon, COVID-19 hit two locations of Pacific Seafood, with more than 140 getting sick, according to state health authorities. And Seattle-based American Seafoods said about 120 crew members from three of its vessels have tested positive.
If fishing crews fall ill, it can prevent boats from going out.
At American Seafoods, the three vessels where employees got sick are currently being idled at port in Seattle for deep cleaning and all staff who were aboard are being quarantined, the company said.
"We continue to work with our public health partners to make appropriate adjustments to our protocols based on the growing body of knowledge about this virus," Chief Executive Officer Mikel Durham said in an emailed statement. "We have extended the quarantine before going to sea to 14 days, and we will require two negative nasal swab tests before crew members can board a vessel."
In Bristol Bay, Carscallen says she'll make sure everyone who works on her boat is tested before they head to sea. Her crew will stay quarantined before heading out and won't interact with other boats, she said. During the process of selling fish to bigger boats or offloading, workers will keep their distance and wear masks.
"As far as the camaraderie and having parties over beers and that kind of thing after work, that just can't happen this year. It's too early to say whether the whole fleet is going to take it seriously or not," she said.
Americans were already eating more seafood before the pandemic amid a shift toward healthier fare. But a lot of consumption took place at restaurants. After lockdown measures closed dining-out options, consumers made a "concerted effort to get their seafood fix at home," said Scott McKenzie, global intelligence leader at analytics firm Nielsen.
Retail sales for seafood rose 26% in the 13 weeks ended May 30 from a year earlier as price hikes and supply-chain hurdles for meat prompted consumers to look other proteins, McKenzie said. In the week ended May 30, sales of crab doubled from 2019.
The seafood industry accounts for about $145 billion in sales and roughly 1.7 million jobs in the U.S., according to National Fisheries Institute, a trade group. The vast majority of those sales — 70% — come from restaurants.
And while fisherman have been glad to see the jump in grocery store sales, it's still not enough to make up for the restaurant shortfall. That's one reason seafood could escape the shortages seen in the meat industry.
Many producers have been "stuck with way too much product," said Greg Bolton, a seafood research technologist at North Carolina State University.
That's translated to some lower prices. Sea scallops tumbled 12% in April from a year earlier to $9.25 a pound, while farm-raised white shrimp hit $3.67 a pound, down 7.3%, according to research company Urner Barry, which has been tracking food prices since 1858. Snow crab sold for $6.95 a pound in early May, down 15% from a year earlier.
Until now, the seafood industry has been relatively unscathed by outbreaks of coronavirus. Industry experts say that even if cases start to increase, the supply fallout is unlikely to be as large as it was for meat. That's because seafood production is far less concentrated and counts many more links in its supply chain from fishmongers to distributors, making it more nimble and less likely to see widespread capacity issues.
"Inside seafood, our disjointed and highly spread-out supply chain used to get made fun of — it's finally working out," said Sean Wittenberg, co-founder of tuna packer Safe Catch.
Seafood processing facilities are also smaller than meatpacking plants, so if one goes down, it has less impact on overall supply. The largest lobster facility in Maine employs between 200 and 250 people, and there are only a couple of facilities in the state that size, said Annie Tselikis, executive director of the Maine Lobster Dealers' Association. By contrast, there are regularly more than 1,000 workers at America's major meat plants.
While consumers could be protected from large supply shortfalls, the virus may still bring a significant toll for some producers. That could add to the pain felt from the lack of restaurant demand, and it comes after U.S. lobster fisheries were already hit by Chinese tariffs in Donald Trump's trade war.
A recent Fisheries Institute survey of 15 seafood distributors found they expect to lose $113 million, on average this year, and see a decrease in sales of more than 40%.
Some of Alaska's fisherman, who primarily operate as small independent businesses, are already seeing catches fetch half of what they did last year at this time, said Jamie O'Connor, a fifth-generation salmon fisher from Bristol Bay. She also serves as director of Working Waterfronts for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.
Though the seafood industry is earmarked to receive $300 million in the federal government's $2 trillion virus relief stimulus package, the funds have been slow to trickle down to the industry and "we don't know of a single seafood company that's seen a dime," said Linsee Fowler, a spokeswoman for the National Fisheries Institute.
Still, the salmon fisher O'Connor and others point to the long-term industry benefits from the increase in at-home seafood consumption.
"Once consumers learn a few seafood recipes they like, they are likely to continue cooking seafood at home," said Rebecca Hamilton, professor of marketing at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business.