Dillingham mayor, Curyung Tribal Council write Dunleavy to consider closing Bristol Bay fishery

Dillingham boat yard. (KTUU)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The mayor of Dillingham and First Chief of the Curyung Tribal Council sent a letter to Gov. Mike Dunleavy Monday asking him to consider closing the summer’s fisheries in Bristol Bay.

Both the city council and the tribal council had previously passed an emergency ordinance and declaration addressing the threat that the influx of thousands of seasonal workers poses to the community’s small healthcare infrastructure.

“We are all concerned with the influx of fishermen coming into our fishery here, into our area with our limited amount of health resources that we have at the Bay area,” First Chief Thomas Tilden, of the Curyung Tribal Council told Channel 2 Tuesday.

Last month Gov. Mike Dunleavy included fishing and processing as essential businesses allowed to continue operating amid mandates from the state that required some businesses to close. Fishermen and processors from out of state have been required to submit a plan and travel declaration form to the state.

“Looking at the application that fishermen fill out to come to the fishery, there’s no question on there about ‘has you or your immediate family had contact with the virus’ or anything concerned about the health of the individual, and what area did they come from. So it’s concerning to us that all of a sudden we have 16,000 people in our area that could potentially bring that virus and affect our community,” Tilden said.

Tilden says that the tribal council is not asking the governor to close the fishery immediately, but to seriously consider it.

“Right now the way the state has worked on this is basically saying this is an essential service and it’s going to happen. What we’re asking to consider is the fact that maybe, maybe this isn’t as essential. A lot of the fishermen I know of are saying ‘well jeez, if it comes to dollars versus my health, my health comes first.’ And so we’re asking the governor to consider that,” Tilden said. “He’s closed down the tourism industry, has closed down the Alcan Highway, he’s done some other closures, and I think he needs to seriously take a look at what’s going to happen to the communities, not only in Bristol Bay, but Kodiak and Cordova and Sitka and Unalaska where all these fisheries are taking place because it is a serious threat to our communities.”

The letter from the city and tribal council comes days after the Bristol Bay Working Group issued minimum protocol it would need to see in place before allowing the commercial salmon season to happen. That included COVID-19 testing before traveling to the region, a quarantine upon arrival and a follow-up negative COVID-19 test, among other protocol.

[Related: Bristol Bay community leaders lay out minimum protocol needed to allow salmon season]

The Bristol Bay Working Group includes the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, of which the Curyung Tribal Council is a member.

Tilden says the protocol put forward is a good start and something to work with.

“But I really think it needs more emphasis put on it in regards to the industry. What are you going to be doing in regards to when you have a sick individual or a fisherman on a boat? How are you going to treat the person? Because the Kanakanak Hospital has four beds, and if the virus hits this town those four beds are going to be occupied by probably local folks. Now what’s going to happen to the outside fishermen? What’s going to happen to the outside processor?” Tilden said. “I really think they should be bringing in their own healthcare. When I looked at what happened in New York they brought in portable units. Those portable units should be in every single processing plant here. They should have their own doctor, they should have their own nursing staff and they should have their own quarantine. There’s a lot more things that I think need to be talked about.”

Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang says that it is premature to decide the fate of the Bristol Bay salmon fishery. Vincent-Lang says that if travel restrictions keep ADF&G from manning field camps at fish counting weirs and sonars it uses to manage the fishery in-season, the department has plans to prosecute a restricted fishery.

This year ADF&G forecasts 48.95 million sockeye salmon to return to Bristol Bay this summer. The commercial catch was expected to harvest 36.9 million of them.

[Related: What would ADF&G do with fish but no fishermen in Bristol Bay? Overescapement risks management challenges]

The 2019 run was larger than the forecast for 2020 by about 7 million fish. ADF&G says the salmon in Bristol Bay last year generated a value of $306.5 million.

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