The Bristol Bay region of Alaska has suddenly come to epitomize the most vexing question around the world: when is it safe to get back to business?
With just months before the seasonal fishery opens -- bringing some 50 million fish back to its water in a span of a few weeks -- business, governments and tribes have been scrambling to develop a plan that makes sense for everyone amid the day-to-day change that coronavirus brings.
The region's sockeye salmon fishery, the largest and most valuable of its kind, supports thousands of fishermen and processing workers and generates substantial tax income for the local area.
Though the numbers vary from season to season, in 2019 the ex-vessel value for the fish harvested in the region was estimated to be over $300 million (€552 million). Based on historical numbers, the first wholesale value was likely twice that.
Yet despite those economic benefits, several groups -- many whose members depend on the sector for income -- have come out in recent weeks with a stark message: Give us more assurances our communities are safe from coronavirus, or close the fishery this year.
What are they thinking?
Different flu, same fears
Lacking anything else to compare the coronavirus crisis to, many have drawn similarities between current events and the 1918 Spanish flu, which killed around 50 million people worldwide.
Numbers that big are abstract; most people alive today don't remember the name of a relative who succumbed to it.
To people of Native descent in the Bristol Bay region, though, the Spanish flu is a visceral part of their history. It began spreading in the region in 1919, when the seafood processing ships arrived ahead of the salmon run.
The local population numbered only around 1,000 people, and the flu had a devastating effect on the small villages where they lived.
Coast guard accounts from that time -- noted by among others Maria Gilson deValpine, a nursing professor at James Madison University and documentaries on the subject -- offered stark details.
The commander on one vessel that went to the Bristol Bay villages to deliver aid, noted in his write-up of events that in one village, "practically all adult natives of that place had died," leaving 12 orphaned children "entirely without protection."
On arrival at another small village, "the entire population, numbering 7 persons, had died...the dogs had stripped their bones."
A cannery superintendent reported a sail boat drifting ashore carrying a crew of three young children and two dead adults.
Those orphaned kids grew up to tell these stories to their children and grandchildren. It's a part of their history.
Why it still matters
Life in Bristol Bay is a lot different today. But there's a lot that's the same. You can only get to the smaller Bristol Bay communities by air.
The Bristol Bay region has around 7,000 residents across several villages, the majority of which are of Native Alaskan descent.
But each summer, for a frenzied period of time, thousands of fishermen, seafood processing plant workers and others flood into the region, primarily the larger cities of Dillingham, King Salmon and Naknek.
It's not unreasonable to think of those arrivals as potential vectors for COVID-19. In fact, it's foolish not to. The health care facilities in the region are meager, with only one major hospital. Serious cases have to be evacuated to Anchorage, some 300 miles away by air.
The Bristol Bay Partnership, a group that includes the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation (a 50 percent owner of Ocean Beauty Seafoods), the Bristol Bay Native Corporation, the Bristol Bay Native Association, United Tribes of Bristol Bay and the Bristol Bay Housing Authority, has stressed these risks to Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, noting in particular the woefully under-prepared Kanakanak hospital in Dillingham would not be able to handle any outbreak.
"There are only four negative pressure rooms and no respiratory therapy support," the group wrote to Dunleavy earlier this month. "Ironically, but not to be taken lightly, this hospital served as an orphanage due to the 1919 flu epidemic."
As we know, the older population is most vulnerable to COVID-19. And I can't emphasize enough how important the elder Native people of the region are both to the local culture and to all of us as a society.
Very, very few Native cultures remain worldwide, and the only remnants we have of most of them depends on the older generations, who have memories of the language, culture and events that shaped their culture: memories like the Spanish flu.
Are the plans robust enough?
Food processing facilities around the contiguous United States have suffered outbreaks of coronavirus.
The list is long, and besides meat and poultry producers Tyson, Perdue, Cargill, JBS and Smithfield, a handful of cases were reported at Trident Seafoods in Washington State, and most recently, High Liner Foods, which shut down its entire seafood processing operation in Portsmouth, New Hampshire after counting 10 cases among workers there, and Blue Harvest Fisheries, which was ordered to suspend operations for 72 hours after cases were discovered among its workers.
Other cases have been reported by other companies in the seafood sector, including Norwegian salmon producer Leroy Seafood (which stopped operations after two cases were reported), Polish salmon processor Milarex (which also stopped operations after two cases), and Chilean salmon farmers Blumar and Camanchaca.
Most seafood companies operating in Bristol Bay have issued plans for preventing the spread of the coronavirus from workers brought in to the region, some more detailed than others. But Bristol Bay is a uniquely complex region given the volume of fish processed, the remoteness of the locations, and, in some cases, less than modern facilities.
I believe companies operating in the region understand their role, both as economic drivers, but also as, for lack of a better word, guests.
As a critically important part of the local and larger seafood economy, it's worth doing whatever it takes from a policy standpoint to find a solution that opens up the Bristol Bay fishery to allow it to support fishermen, processing workers and their families.
But it's even more important to respect the very real concerns of the local communities -- after all, they're the ones that will live with any consequences, and will be left with the memories of how things went wrong or right.