A Seattle-based factory trawler cut short its fishing season off the Washington coast after 85 of 126 crew tested positive for COVID-19 in screening results obtained Saturday, according to a statement released by vessel operator American Seafoods.
The test results for the FV American Dynasty are a somber finding for the North Pacific fishing industry, which has been trying to keep the novel coronavirus off the ships and out of the shore-based plants that produce much of the nation’s seafood.
The outbreak also underscores the toll coronavirus continues to take on the food processing industry across the nation. In Washington state, outbreaks in meat plants, fruit and vegetable fields and packing facilities prompted Gov. Jay Inslee to order new protections for agricultural and food processing workers.
As part of the effort to keep outbreaks from impacting the seafood industry, the American Dynasty crew, before heading off to sea May 13, were screened for the virus and underwent quarantines. They also underwent additional testing for the antibodies created by the virus.
“Only if there were no signs that they were actively infected or contagious were they cleared to board their vessel,” American Seafoods chief executive Mikel Durham said in a written statement.
Somehow, the virus still found its way on board.
Last week, as the vessel docked in Bellingham, one crew member reported feeling sick, tested positive for COVID-19 and was hospitalized. That prompted the company to have the rest of the crew screened, and 85 tested positive in results received Saturday. Results were still pending for nine crew members, according to a statement released Sunday by American Seafoods.
A company spokeswoman said none of the crew that tested positive Saturday initially appeared to have symptoms. Two later reported feeling ill.
But the son of one crewman said his father described the illness spreading on board while it was still at sea earlier last week off the coast of Washington. The crewman’s son, who requested anonymity to protect the privacy of his family, said his father fell sick with symptoms that included fever and cough, as did others. His father also was frustrated because some crew members were not following protocols that required them to wear masks, according to the son.
“We are taking any concerns seriously while the ship was out,” said Suzanne Lagoni, the American Seafoods spokeswoman. “We welcome anyone who wants to call to talk about their experiences. All the crew members were given the cell number of our manager of employee health.”
Lagoni said the company is conducting, in cooperation with other agencies, an investigation of the outbreak, and employees’ experiences at sea will be part of the review.
The vessel is now moored in Seattle, and crew members who tested positive have been taken on shore, where they are being monitored by medical personnel.
“The health and safety of our crew, employees and the communities where we operate is always the top priority for us,” said Durham. She noted the company is cooperating with the U.S. Coast Guard, Public Health — Seattle & King County, Port of Seattle and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
American Seafoods, which operates a fleet of six vessels, is a major player in harvests off Washington and Alaska with the ability to process catches on board into frozen products. Off Washington, the American Dynasty was fishing for hake, also known as whiting, and was later scheduled to fish for pollock during a summer season in the Bering Sea.
The vessel’s season is on hold, at least for now.
Durham said the company has contract medics aboard its vessels, and medical equipment to respond to COVID-19. The company also has put in place “preparedness procedures” in the event of an outbreak. Those plans are now “fully executed,” and updates will be provided as the situation evolves, according to a statement from American Seafoods.
American Seafoods’ pre-fishing season procedures to prevent an outbreak included a quarantine for crew members of at least five days that was accompanied by testing. That differs from the protocols used by some other companies, which have used 14-day quarantines.
Ann Jarris of Discovery Health MD said her medical services firm, which has contracted with more than 30 fishing companies, recommends the two-week quarantine coupled with testing. As far as she knows, of those companies that went to sea, none has had positive cases of COVID-19 among crew after completing the quarantine and testing program.