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COVID-19 Closes A Third Aleutian Plant, Stranding Bering Sea Fishermen At The Dock

Hope McKenney

A third seafood processing plant has shut down in the Aleutian Islands amid a COVID-19 outbreak, threatening to further derail lucrative winter fisheries in the region.

In the Aleutian port town of Unalaska, at least five local boats are stuck at the dock with nowhere to deliver their cod after the shutdown of the Alyeska Seafoods processing plant, according to a crew member on one of them, Tacho Camacho Castillo. 

Alyeska closed its plant Friday "based on a cluster of positive cases" identified through "surveillance testing," the City of Unalaska said in a prepared statement.

"There's two days and this fish starts to spoil," Camacho Castillo, a crew member on the 58-foot Lucky Island, said in an interview Friday. "Am I going to be throwing out fish into the ocean? It's gonna break my heart, for real, if I throw all this fish away."

The plant closures are setting off a scramble among fishermen, industry leaders and political officials involved in the Bering Sea cod, crab and pollock fisheries, which are worth more than $1 billion and support thousands of jobs.

If the outbreaks can be brought under control over the next few weeks and the winter "A-season" pollock fishery can continue, the impacts shouldn't be too great, said Brent Paine, executive director of United Catcher Boats, whose members fish for Bering Sea cod and pollock. 


Credit Hope McKenney/KUCB
The Lucky Island heads out of Unalaska's Carl E. Moses boat harbor to fish for cod.

But extended closures would be costly and much more disruptive, he added. Pollock trawlers, he noted, have a limited window to catch the fish when they hold valuable roe, which is ultimately sold to Asian markets.

"We've got some pretty serious problems to solve here," Paine said in a phone interview Saturday. "The further into the A-season we go, if we don't have processor capacity, we will have less opportunity to solve the problems."

Last winter, the Bering Sea fisheries largely dodged the COVID-19 pandemic, which didn't take hold until after companies had flown in hundreds of seasonal processing workers to the Aleutian Islands. But this year, the virus is far more widespread in the U.S., and appears to be posing a greater challenge to seafood companies.

The Alyeska plant was the third to announce a COVID-19-related shutdown this month. Its owner, Westward Seafoods, did not respond to a request for comment, and neither it nor Unalaska city officials have said how many workers tested positive.

Earlier in the week, industry heavyweight Trident Seafoods announced an outbreak at its huge, remote plant on the Aleutian island of Akutan, about 35 miles northwest of Unalaska. The company said it would close for three weeks, and several days after its initial announcement, bad weather had thwarted its efforts to bring in enough supplies for mass testing of its 700-person Akutan workforce.

In the Aleutian fishing hub of Unalaska, the largest processing plant in town, owned by UniSea, has been shut down for nearly three weeks amid a COVID-19 outbreak — though company officials say they think the virus is under control and that they hope to reopen soon.

Credit Hope McKenney/KUCB
The crew of the Lucky Island waits to offload cod after Alyeska closed its plant Friday following a COVID-19 outbreak.

The closures are a problem not just for fishermen's livelihoods, but for the economy of Unalaska and its municipal government, which derives more than a third of its general fund revenue from the fishing industry.

"The city is certainly concerned not only for the health of the individuals who this is directly impacting, but also the health and the livelihood of many individuals working here and the economy as a whole," Unalaska City Manager Erin Reinders said in an interview Friday. "This is the major driving force of the city's revenues." 

Reinders said she's asked Unalaska's finance director to analyze how the closures will affect the city's revenues, but added that there are still many unknowns. 

"It certainly reminds us of the importance of working towards diversifying the economy," Reinders said. "We've always talked about that: If anything happened in the fishing industry, that would be a significant impact on us." 

Only two plants remain operational on the island. 

One is Westward's other processing facility, and the other is Icicle Seafoods' floating Northern Victor plant — a 380-foot vessel docked permanently on Unalaska's spit.

Many boats associated with the closed plants are waiting to start fishing until the plants reopen. 

But some are in limbo, like the Unalaska-based Lucky Island,  with its load of cod that Camacho Castillo, the crew member said is worth "five figures," or at least $10,000.

"I know that's not a lot to big boats, but for a ma and pa shop here in town that's a huge smack in the face," said Camacho Castillo, who works on the boat with his brother and cousin.

While fishing late Thursday, the Lucky Island got a call informing them that Alyeska's plant was shutting down, and that they couldn't deliver their cod there.

Diego Castillo, the Lucky Island's captain, said they were told to deliver to the still-functioning plant operated by Westward, Alyeska's parent company. But Westward told the crew that the plant was too busy processing crab, and that the Lucky Island would have to wait. 

While the federal cod fishing season has already wrapped up for boats 60 feet and over, it's not yet over for smaller boats like Castillo's. But the fishery is competitive and the window is short, and waiting to deliver their catch "throws a wrench in the operation," he said. 

"We've got to get out there when the weather permits, and being here stuck in line to offload behind big crabbers — which take a whole day or a couple days sometimes, depending on the load — it's just frustrating," he said. "We’ve got bills to pay."

In the derby-style cod fishery, boats like Castillo's compete to catch as many pounds as they can before hitting a fleet-wide limit.

But the lucrative pollock fishery is different: Boats form cooperative groups that each have their own quota, allowing them to fish at their own pace.

That structure removes some of the pressure from companies and boats during the plant closures. But the longer the shutdowns continue and the season is delayed, the bigger the problem, said Paine, who works with the industry trade group.

Companies are currently exploring whether it's possible to loosen regulations that restrict how much fish boats can deliver to a plant that's outside their cooperative group, Paine said. 

"This is a huge challenge," he added. "But I think people are looking at finding ways toward solutions."

Hope McKenney is a public radio news director, reporter, producer and host based in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska.
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