BRISTOL BAY, ALASKA: Communities in this rural fishing region, site of the world’s largest sockeye salmon run that draws thousands of workers each year, are defined, in part, by their isolation. Everything is a plane ride or more away, including medical care, food, and supplies. The largest hospital in the region has little more than a dozen beds to serve a combined population of about 7,000.So the threat of COVID-19 is worrisome in a place still haunted by the 1919 Spanish flu epidemic, which wiped out 30 to 40 percent of the population, historians estimate, leaving behind a generation of orphans.
Moreover, Alaska Natives and Indigenous people have been disproportionately affected by the current pandemic. Alaska Natives have died at four times the rate of whites due to complications from the coronavirus. Nationwide, a higher percentage of Alaska Natives and Indigenous peoples have died from COVID-19 than any other demographic.Thomas Tilden, First Chief of Curyung Tribal Council in Dillingham and a commercial fisherman, remembers hearing elders when he was young talk about the devastating toll of the 1919 epidemic. “When they talked about it, and they very rarely did talk about it, they’d talk about it in hushed tones. You could tell that it really scared them.”Tilden, now 68, says that there was a period of regrouping following the wide-scale loss, a time of trying to relearn crafts that were lost with the dead. “It wasn’t just a pandemic that hit them.”
Combating COVID-19Before the 2020 fishing season kicked off and thousands of people traveled to Bristol Bay, there was fear among the local population that history would repeat itself. Citing the 1919 epidemic, limited medical facilities, and outbreaks in the meat factories across the U.S., local and tribal groups organized and petitioned the Alaska government and industry officials for strict regulations for fishermen and processing plants. Tribal councils and the Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation, without assurance that the season would be regulated to protect the local community, called for the fishery’s closure.But with many other industries hurting in a state largely built on seasonal industries, closing salmon fishing season— which is estimated by a recent study to bring in $2 billion annually—would have resulted in a wide-reaching economic blow.
Safety protocols were finally agreed on just weeks before the start of the season. Testing, travel regulations, quarantining, and masking were mandated, and the measures were put in place in all areas of the fishery. Processing plants operated strictly as closed campuses. Fishermen were quarantined on their boats in the boatyards. Once a crew was at sea, it stayed at sea; there was no returning to the docks or sending people into town. The port was closed to the public—as it continued to be this year. When a crew aboard a fishing vessel contracted COVID-19 in Dillingham, the boat was hauled into the boatyard and surrounded with yellow caution tape like a crime scene.
With all the safety measures in place, it was just a matter of waiting.“We were waiting for the big burst to happen,” says Tilden. “But it didn’t happen." There was not a single documented case of COVID-19 in the local Dillingham population until the fall of 2020. And only a few cases emerged during the season in nearby Naknek, a major hub for the fishery.
"By July 20, I was like ‘that was okay. We made it,” Tilden says. “We know we can make it now.’ It’s like the first person that crosses a river after it jams up. That person makes it, you know you’re going to make it, too. What a feeling.”