A delegation of state and federal officials is visiting Kodiak today as part of a statewide tour aimed, in part, at learning how fishing communities are preparing for the influx of workers for the salmon fishing season and how they are responding to the coronavirus pandemic.
The delegation includes Dr. Alexander Eastman, the senior medical officer at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and Dr. Anne Zink, the Alaska state chief medical officer, among others.
During a press conference Monday, state officials listed several fishing communities the delegation will visit in addition to Kodiak, including Nome, Cordova, Bristol Bay and some rural villages.
“The orders are simple. To deliver the absolute best of what the federal government has, the full array of resources to provide the necessary technical assistance on the ground,“ Eastman said.
Eastman added that the federal government is looking to ensure that everything they do ties in with Alaska’s response and history.
“The best way to figure out what exactly is going on here in Alaska and how best we can help is to come here and work together with the Alaskan team to try to make a real difference,” he said.
While in Kodiak, the delegation plans to meet with the city and borough mayors, as well as other city and private sector representatives.
Kodiak Island Borough Mayor Bill Roberts said he thinks the delegation wants to visit Kodiak to see how the island is responding to COVID-19.
“They want to see how well we are doing,” Roberts said. “All the fish processing plants have filed mitigation plans as required by the local ESC and state. They are testing and quarantining incoming people. I think it will be a positive thing.”
City of Kodiak Mayor Pat Branson said they will also address what is needed to best manage the influx of visitors and fishermen for salmon season.
“We are going to show them how we have been proactive in keeping Kodiak strong and safe with only one case with a collaborative effort from different agencies, providers and officials,” Branson said. “They will probably ask us … how we’ve done this and maybe what our needs are.”
One issue Branson would like to address with the delegation is the lack of enforcement of mandates for visitors flying into state-owned Kodiak Benny Benson State Airport.
“When people fly into town we have forms for them to fill out to quarantine but we don't have any enforcement there and in making sure people quarantine,” she said. “The gap is that there are mandates for people to quarantine but there’s no enforcement. I hope to bring that up (today).”
Enforcement of the state health mandates has primarily depended on self-policing by Alaskans.
As the delegation visits Kodiak and other communities, local fishermen who plan to fish in Bristol Bay are trying to prepare for the season, although with some difficulty.
Mike Friccero, a Bristol Bay skipper and former board chairman of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, said he has had difficulty finding suitable cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment for his boat, the F/V Miss Gina.
“I’m buying a lot of hand sanitizer and looking around for clorox wipes,” he said. “The things we are going to need like PPE and resources related to managing our crew are hard to find,” he said.
Fortunately, he said he has found plenty of paper towels and disinfectant spray.
“We are going to get by,” he said of using whatever he is able to find.
Friccero — who has participated in workgroups to outline procedures for fishermen to follow — urged fishermen to stay up to date with upcoming changes to health mandate 17.
State health mandate 17 establishes standardized protective measures for independent commercial fishing vessels operating within Alaskan waters.
“The best thing a Bristol Bay fisherman can do is wait two weeks and then study all of it,” Friccero said about potential additions to the mandate. “Anything that is true now may not be true two weeks from now.”
As communities gear up for the salmon season, which opens by regulation June 1, the state is increasing the presence of Alaska State Troopers and Wildlife Troopers to help protect and manage fishing in Bristol Bay and the surrounding communities.
According to Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum, troopers typically have a presence in the area during the summer fishery.
This year, in addition to enforcing order and conducting safety calls and search and rescue operations, they will also be enforcing the state health mandates in the Bristol Bay area, including Dilingham and King Salmon.
“AWT will monitor and encourage all fishery participants to comply with all State of Alaska issued Health Mandates related to the COVID-19 Pandemic, so that a safe fishery can be enjoyed by all,” said a press release by the Alaska Department of Public Safety.
Kodiak has also bolstered security in the city’s harbors with six extra personnel provided by the state after a request was submitted by the Kodiak Emergency Operations Center.
According to the Kodiak EOC, the extra personnel are helping staff make contact with vessels coming into the harbor and with people who are walking on the docks between boats and the parking lot, asking them about their travel history and making sure they are quarantined if needed.
There are 14 vessels in quarantine between both harbors and the shipyard, up from 12 vessels reported on Friday.