Is this another COVID-19 article? Yes, and more than that, this is a outdoors article.
The new coronavirus has affected all of us, and it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The virus is real. People can and do die from the virus. However, those who depend on fish for their income, recreation or food are going to have to live with results of the government response to this epidemic for a long time.
The commercial fishing markets have been especially hard hit. Salmon and halibut fishermen depend heavily on the restaurant market. The steady price increases of the past few years are fueled by the fresh fish market. The government shutdown of in-house dining all but eliminated that market.
April restaurant sales in the United States were half of what they were in January. That doesn’t tell the whole picture. Most of those sales were takeout sales, in some cases leaning heavily toward fast food and pizzas. There are not many salmon pizzas available.
Frozen fish sales, both salmon and halibut, were up, but those products are not as valuable as fresh fish. The bump in March and April inventory sales were likely fueled by folks stocking their freezers.
Commercial processors in Alaska are considering reactivating some of their canning lines to hold an expected bumper return of sockeye. The fishermen will take the brunt of the corresponding price drop.
It will be a legitimate reduction — canneries will have to quarantine hundreds of workers at their expense. Processing lines will have to be spread out, which means handling less fish per shift. Processors feed cafeteria-style, so mess halls will need to be revamped to allow for some social distancing. Medical testing will happen on a twice-daily basis. That will require extra personnel who have nothing to do with fish processing.
Fishermen will also have added challenges. Most will have to quarantine upon arrival at their boat. Mechanic shops will not be nearly as available — a half-dozen or more of the Bristol Bay shops are not opening at all this season.
Fishermen will not be able to utilize dockside cannery facilities; most processors have instituted a “closed campus” arrangement in an attempt to be good corporate citizens. That means extreme measures to keep outsiders at arm’s length from the local community.
The ramifications of these changes are not going to be measured in weeks, but rather in a change of habit. Less fresh wild salmon means opportunity for farmed fish, which can fill the gaps quite easily on demand.
Sport fishermen, you are next. It will be fun fishing with a mask. COVID-19 is just as real on the banks of Russian River as it is at Walmart.
Think about contact tracing. It looks like it may be here to stay. Social distancing will stick around too. Until we get a vaccine, you think? Think again. According to the CDC, studies show the flu vaccine reduces the risk of flu illness by only 40% to 60%.
The good news for sport fishermen is there will not be as much out-of state competition this summer. There will be more room on the river bank. But there will be less money and fewer prizes in your favorite halibut or salmon derby also, and some will be canceled.
Many of the services we have near popular fishing locales depend on numbers, and resident sport fishermen will not be enough to keep all of them afloat. Those fishermen who are currently unemployed may not be able to justify a $100 gas bill to go catch a couple of rainbows.
Personal-use fishermen will have good opportunities to dipnet this season. There may be a few more fish up the rivers. However, the folks who are able to take advantage of traveling long distances for fish may be the ones who need those fish the least. The people who have no job will not have the money to travel to the fishing hole.
The government response to COVID-19 has wrecked our economy. Time will tell whether it has been wise or if it has been overkill. Undoubtedly the Alaska response has saved some of us from contracting the virus. It has also saved lives. That is a good thing in the short term.
What has it done to our social infrastructure? The state has touted outdoor activities during this pandemic and has been proactive in encouraging us to get outdoors. It is up to us to decide what the balance needs to be.
We can and will recover from the economic disaster. It may be quite a lot tougher to rebound from the social impacts. The coronavirus costs lives, but is it possible the long-term effects may cost us more?
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and a two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.
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