Helping a Western Alaska fishing community cope with an influx during the pandemic

By Davin Holen

Each summer, around 13,000 workers from outside Alaska travel to the Bristol Bay region to participate in the world’s most valuable wild salmon fishery. How the fishery, community, and region prepare and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic is the topic of a new project. 

The sparsely populated western coast of Alaska is accessible only by air or boat, and medical services are limited. These factors present a particular set of challenges in operating a fishery worth around $1.5 billion during a pandemic. 

Fishing boats of the coast of Dillingham
Fishing boats near Dillingham, Alaska. Gabe Dunham photo.

This project will develop pandemic preparedness scenarios for local policymakers and fishery managers and is focused on the community of Dillingham and the Nushagak fishery. Researchers working with the community will survey stakeholders to clarify the costs and benefits of potential mitigation policies and to understand the risk preferences of fishermen, processors, and local residents. This information will be shared with the community to help them plan how best to navigate the risks and uncertainties they face.

Risk mitigation strategies developed for this community will be available to the larger Bristol Bay fishery and to other fisheries and fishing communities in Alaska to adapt for their own challenges and priorities.

The project team includes two researchers from Alaska Sea Grant, Gabe Dunham, the local Marine Advisory Program agent, and Davin Holen, Alaska Sea Grant’s statewide coastal community resilience specialist. Research partners include the UAF Bristol Bay Campus, University of Alaska Anchorage, and Pennsylvania State University. The National Science Foundation (NSF) is funding this rapid response project. 

The POLARIS team visited an ecological monitoring site in Bristol Bay, February, 2020.
Gabe Dunham photo.

The research team was able to react quickly to the outbreak of coronavirus because they had recently begun work on a project in Dillingham as part of the NSF initiative Navigating the New Arctic. Alaska Sea Grant’s Holen is also a principal investigator on that project, Pursuing Opportunities for Long-term Arctic Resilience for Infrastructure and Society (POLARIS), which is  looking to better understand and address impacts from the region’s rapidly changing climate.

Those participating in the Bristol Bay fishery, as well as residents of Dillingham, can visit the COVID-19 Bristol Bay Survey project to learn more and to participate in the survey.

Survey results will be available in late fall and follow-up interviews will be conducted to better understand information gathered through the survey, and assess challenges encountered during the 2020 fishing season. The findings are expected to be published this winter to aid planning for the 2021 fishing season in the region and elsewhere in Alaska.

For more background information on the effort, see a story about the project from Penn State University.