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Alaska Aims To Keep Salmon Fisherman, Resident Safe During Pandemic

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Alaska is moving ahead with its salmon fishing season despite concerns about the coronavirus. Thousands from across the country are headed to the world's largest salmon fishery, but officials say they are ready to keep the crowd safe. Izzy Ross of Alaska's Energy Desk reports from Bristol Bay.

IZZY ROSS, BYLINE: In the harbor town of Dillingham, many people recall the legacy of another pandemic. The Spanish flu devastated communities around Alaska in 1918 and 1919. It killed some 40% of Bristol Bay's adults.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CAWING)

ROSS: Thomas Tilden is the first chief of the Curyung Tribal Council.

THOMAS TILDEN: And my grandma was telling me - she said, what happened there was not only to those individuals or to those families, but it was what happened to us as people.

ROSS: That history is weighing on his mind as the commercial fishery gears up to open. Thousands of fishermen and processors come to tap the millions of red salmon returning to spawn. Tilden is also a fisherman. He says most boats in Bristol Bay aren't made for social distancing.

TILDEN: You know, you're lucky if you even have a bathroom on your boat, you know? If someone gets sick, you know, they say confine him to a special space. Where - the back stern of the boat? You know, or what do you do?

ROSS: The city of Dillingham, as well as several tribes and the regional health corporation, asked the state to consider closing the fishery in early April. They pointed out the only hospital has no intensive care unit and just two ventilators. Gayla Hoseth is the tribe's second chief.

GAYLA HOSETH: We shouldn't have to sacrifice the life of anybody so that people could go and make some money.

ROSS: Governor Mike Dunleavy's administration says it's committed to keeping the fishery open. It's released a set of requirements aimed at keeping fishermen and communities safe. Testing is being provided, and there will be 14-day quarantine for boats and state-assisted medevac service if necessary. The Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association is satisfied. Executive director Andy Wink says the association is offering discounted medevac insurance packages as part of the plan.

ANDY WINK: We provided input on it and, you know, again, had put out our set of safety ideas, and a lot of them are incorporated into the state mandate. So, yes, we feel it is - that they are workable options.

ROSS: Fisherman Peter Aliotti has been coming to Alaska from California for more than 20 years, but he isn't looking forward to this season. He'll be taking the temperature of his crew twice a day. And...

PETER ALIOTTI: We can't just hang out in our room and rest in our room in between periods of fishing. You know, we have to stay on the boat. So that's going to be the worst part, given the fact that, you know, it's light the majority of the time (laughter) in Alaska all day. So it's going to be a long season, for sure.

ROSS: Aliotti makes up to a third of his annual income in Bristol Bay. And he says he can't afford to sit out this year.

ALIOTTI: No, this is a necessity. I have to - we have to go up there.

ROSS: Dillingham saw its first case of COVID-19 in an out-of-state seafood worker. State, local and tribal leaders praised the protocols that they say ensured the case was identified before the infected person came out of quarantine. But they say there's still more work to do if they want to pull off the season safely.

For NPR News, I'm Izzy Ross in Dillingham, Alaska.

(SOUNDBITE OF MESSAGE TO BEARS SONG, "AT A GLANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.