The spring trawl harvest for whiting is underway off the Northwest coast in an unusual year when a crucial marker of success won’t just be nets stuffed with fish but crews that stay healthy and free from the COVID-19 disease.
To try to assure that outcome, hundreds of crew members went through two weeks of shore-side quarantine coupled with testing for the novel coronavirus that did identify a few who, if they had gone out to sea, risked sickness and spreading the virus.
“There’s no silver bullet. But this is a huge deal,” said Karl Bratvold, a managing partner of Aleutian Spray Fisheries, which operates the catcher-processor vessel Starbound now harvesting whiting in open waters off the Olympic Peninsula. “We have a steady crew. And I’m glad they came back. They work in tight quarters and it’s scary out there. We had to do what we had to do to keep these people safe.”
The testing unfolds as the food industry — considered essential since the pandemic spread widely earlier this spring — has struggled with operations that often involve long hours of labor for crews who work in proximity to one another.
For the seafood industry, screenings are most effective when crews who complete quarantine then work in isolation either on ships or in remote Alaska processing facilities with lodging.
In Pacific Northwest coastal communities, shore-side plants typically have workers who live in the community, and some are grappling with outbreaks, including Bornstein Seafoods in Astoria, Oregon, which has had more than two dozen workers test positive for COVID-19, according to The Astorian.
The Starbound has a crew this spring of 115. The vessel, which motored out of Seattle this week, already has brought in a first haul of 45 metric tons of whiting that will be made into surimi, frozen fillet blocks and fish meal.
Whiting is one of the early fisheries in a series of spring and summer trawl, pot, longline and salmon fisheries that unfold off the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. This year, vessel and processing-plant owners plan to send thousands of fishermen and processors through COVID-19 testing in an effort to keep the disease from boats and remote villages in Alaska, where Native populations are still scarred by the ravages of the Spanish flu pandemic a century ago.
Aleutian Spray Fisheries and some other fishing companies have hired Discovery Health MD, a Seattle-based firm with long involvement with the maritime fleet, to conduct two rounds of shore-side screening at the beginning and end of quarantines. The protocol administers swab tests that identify active cases of COVID-19 as well as antibody tests that may indicate if a person previously was exposed to the virus that causes the disease.
“This was quite something to make this happen, and we’re quite proud of it,” said Brent Paine, executive director of United Catcher Boats, which sent crews from a fleet of some 16 smaller trawl boats through the testing.
Dr. Ann Jarris, an emergency medicine physician who co-founded Discovery Health MD with her late husband, Dr. Ray Jarris, said some 520 crew members have already completed two weeks of testing and quarantine. She said the initial testing found about 2% were positive for COVID-19, and thus were kept out of the spring whiting season, while roughly 2% had antibodies.
During the second round of testing at the end of the quarantine, an additional 2.5% of the crew were positive for active cases of COVID-19. She said that these crew could have been exposed before entering quarantine.
Jarris said the testing protocols cost about $500 per crew member, and that federal dollars are needed to expand the screening and make it available for other industries.
“This is all part of a much bigger question of fitness for duty, and how do we make workplaces safe,” said Jarris, who launched her COVID-19 screening this spring, and hired more than two dozen employees to help make it happen.