Despite no confirmed cases of the new coronavirus in Alaska, the outbreak has caused uncertainty among the stakeholders in Kodiak’s fisheries. From pricing to production, the impact has been felt throughout the industry.
Fishermen are among those whose livelihoods have been affected by the coronavirus in part because of interruptions in production of essential products and shipments from Asia.
Among those affected are Julie and Ron Kavanaugh, who own F/V Insatiable. They get bait from seafood processor Golden Harvest Alaska Seafood in Adak. However, in recent weeks the facility has had issues procuring saury, a bait fish that looks similar to herring.
“The saury supply has been cut off due to the fact that it comes from the Asian market, and we are using a low grade herring that does not fish well,” said Julie Kavanaugh, who also sits on the Borough Assembly.
Use of the alternate bait has decreased their harvest by about 50%, she said.
Getting supplies produced in Asia to Kodiak has also been difficult. Toward the end of winter, the Kavanaughs order materials necessary to repair their fishing gear needed for the fall. But this winter, they have not been able to get enough spools of line to repair the pots they use to catch groundfish.
“We only have been able to get about two-thirds of the line that we would normally get,” Julie said. “That is directly related to a lack of supply out of Korea and China. They are just not getting shipments through because the production of that line has been halted.”
In addition to production, the market has also been affected, but the extent of impact is unknown. However, many salmon fishermen fear the uncertainty and the potential for decreased profits during the upcoming season.
Duncan Fields, a local fisherman and chair of the Kodiak Salmon Work Group, said seafood producers are seeing slow demand and a decrease in price, which could translate to a lower dock price for fishermen.
“In Kodiak, the run forecasts are down a little bit. You have Icicle (Seafoods) not processing at the Larsen Bay plant, then you have this expectation of lower ex-vessel prices,” Fields said, adding that there is an increased level of concern and nervousness among fishermen.
Garrett Evridge, a fisheries economist with the McDowell Group, said it is too early to know how prices will be impacted. However, he pointed out that coronavirus is “injecting uncertainty” of product movement from Alaska to other markets.
“A pink salmon that's harvested in Kodiak goes to China for reprocessing and might end up in France to be consumed there,” Evridge said. “Anything gumming up or adding friction to that process is typically a detriment.”
In addition to the coronavirus scare, other factors that could impact price include increased competition from Russia and ongoing trade disputes.
According to Evridge, Russia has contributed 45% of the total global wild salmon supply during the last decade, and has been producing more pink salmon than Alaska.
“Given all of the factors such as supply from Russia and the coronavirus which could hamper the efficient movement of products to China, there is certainly some hesitancy to be optimistic,” he said, but added that because processors have not yet set prices, it is too early to speculate.
The coronavirus outbreak will also impact how seafood processing workers are hired for employment in Kodiak.
To prepare for the incoming influx of workers for the salmon season this summer, processing workers travelling through Seattle will be screened at a local clinic starting in May, said James Turner, the plant manager at Kodiak’s Ocean Beauty Seafoods processing plant.
“If their screening is clear then they will head to Kodiak; if not they will head back home,” Turner said, adding that the clinic will have to clear them for any respiratory issues and go through a set of criteria.
Of the 150 to 350 employees at Ocean Beauty, 40 to 50 of them are seasonal and are hired from outside of Kodiak. About 10 of those hires are from foreign countries.
“The majority of Ocean Beauty employees work and live in Kodiak. Once we fill those vacancies with employees that live here year round, then we will hire outside sources,“ Turner said. “We typically get about 10 H-2B visa workers. We can go up to 15 if we don't find any in the Lower 48, but the majority of them will come from Seattle and California.”