Gale Burford is a member of the On the Move Advisory Committee. Gale is Professor Emeritus of University of Vermont and continues to consult on evaluation and research projects locally and internationally. He is a collaborator with the Restorative International Learning Community based at Dalhousie University. His research has centered mainly on child and family services, domestic violence, and restorative justice. Gale’s most widely-disseminated work grew from the Family Group Decision Making Project, with colleague Dr. Joan Pennell, a multi-year project with sites in Nain, Labrador, the Port-au-Port Peninsula, and St. John’s NL. He fished commercially during summers in Prince William Sound and the Copper River Delta in Alaska from 1959-1966.
On April 4th Gale contacted On the Move to see what we were doing to raise awareness around some of the challenges COVID-19 is posing for small, remote, coastal fishing communities. Fishing communities are often single industry towns with limited access to key healthcare and other services. Although remote, they are intimately connected to the wider world, particularly during short, intensive fishing seasons that are crucial to the survival of these communities as supply chains, and historical and contemporary recruitment efforts bring in the machinery, goods and people needed to harvest and process the catch. As vessels move between landing ports and often shifting fishing grounds, and as product is shipped from these communities into national and global markets, all of these mobilities create opportunities for infection and challenges for pandemic management (Sapin, 2020a, 2020b, 2020c; Stuff, 2020). There is a history of pandemic-associated mass deaths in some coastal communities including in the community of Hebron on Labrador’s North coast which was devastated by the so-called Spanish Flu in 1918.
In this blog, Gale reflects on the Facetime session that brought home his personal and professional connections to the work of OTM and more particularly to links between mobility and COVID-19 in coastal communities. He notes the following was dashed off in a middle-of-the night email to colleagues on the OTM Advisory:
I just had a most fascinating, and worrying, Facetime session with my youngest sister who lives in Cordova, Alaska. Cordova has a population of a couple of thousand but this will change when the itinerant cannery workers and commercial fishermen and women arrive in just a few weeks.
My sister told me that Cordova has been cut off from regular ferry service all winter due to cuts – this in one of the most challenging winters in recent memory. In addition, flights in and out have been limited to medivac emergencies and supplies since the COVID-19 virus ramped up.
The itinerant cannery workforce is diverse in culture and language including workers from Mexico and other immigrants who have been following seasonal work up the West Coast of the US. They will begin arriving soon, some coming up the coast by boat or flying in from Washington and points South, others coming from the Philippines where they return in the Fall, and still others coming from more distant parts of the world. As they arrive, the cannery workers will move into bunk houses provided by the local canneries that are located in and near the town. These workers tend to live separately from the townsfolk.
Despite COVID-19, the flights and ferry runs are expected to resume soon because fishing is categorized as an essential industry. The uncertain future of fresh markets especially in Seattle and points South could mean an even bigger year than normal for the canneries. Depending of course on the volume of the catch.
The fishermen and women come from all over the state of Alaska and from the lower 48; many come from the state of Washington and the Pacific North West. Some travel up from Seattle bringing their seiners if outfitting was needed during the winter, but many have gill net rigs or seiners in dry dock in Cordova. They will come up for the whole of the various and hopefully rich runs of fish from April through to September/October depending on when the season is called.
The medical services in Cordova are small but responsive and well known to our family as I’ve gone to Cordova to help out my sis who is diabetic and an amputee (but still drives her truck and happily works at the front desk in the local museum when it is open). The community is immensely supporting and embracing of her. I have also spent time with her in Anchorage hospitals each time she has had to be medivaced out – a service for its coastal and remote communities that Alaska has a comparatively stellar positive record of supporting.
Like most coastal communities, Cordova depends on the income from the fishery. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, this year emotions in the community range from outright fear of the virus to a warm embrace of Spring and of the expectant economic infusion (“winter is over – let’s make some money”).
The people of Cordova are hardy. They live there because of their love of the place and have considerable experience dealing with natural and human-created disaster. For instance, they are located in Prince William Sound. Remember the Exxon Valdez?
These kinds of scenarios – mixed emotions around the risk of infection from the virus from those arriving, and potential challenges for their health care system and anticipation/need for the jobs are playing out in coastal communities all over Alaska from the South Coast to Bristol Bay and beyond.
I’m on FB with several people in Cordova, where we have long-standing connections [full disclosure: our father was ‘lost at sea’ near Cordova in 1969 where he was a seasonal commercial fisherman – something that has always been a link in my mind to OTM – we lived in Idaho, fished in Alaska]. While the town is for the moment untouched by the COVID-19 virus, at least that I know about, the annual ‘boom’ will, as locals are well aware, increase exposure as it has over the years to other challenges including opiates, crystal meth, gambling and the other markets in vice that travel behind prosperity. They are not unprepared. Besides stopping flights, Cordovans have been regulating risk using “distancing” and closure of non-essential stores and premises. I am interested to know about others’ thoughts and work they have done related to these issues.
The conversation with my sis and with my Facebook friends got me wondering who is on top, or trying to get on top, of this from OTM, and if I can learn more. And I don’t know if Canada’s coastal communities are impacted similarly or if things are very different.
Atlantic Canada’s coastal communities are somewhat less dependent on the kinds of diverse international and internally migrant labour forces described here for Cordova although vessels and harvesters do move around and some plant workers come from other countries and regions to go to work. Most but not all of Atlantic Canada’s coastal communities are somewhat less isolated than Cordova from larger centres but there are similar questions around what the opening of fisheries might mean for the spread of infection in the context of the pandemic and about the ability of rural health care services to accommodate clusters of infected people. Here we have less sense of what fishing communities are thinking than about what is happening in some (but not all) parts of the industry.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, with the support of processors and the union representing plant workers and harvesters, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans recently delayed the start of the spring snow crab fishery until April 20 and there is discussion around potentially delaying it further to allow for the development of work protocols that can help ensure work in the industry does not endanger the health and safety of workers, harvesters and their families. As in Cordova, the industry is seeking to balance the health and safety challenges of living and working in confined spaces and potentially crowded plants with the need for employment, income and to ensure eligibility for Employment Insurance to get them through to the next season. This is a piece of the puzzle but it would be great to know more.
Thanks to Janet Elisovsky and Teresa De Simone of Cordova.
Sapin R (2020a) Alaska pollock industry scrambles to protect fleet from coronavirus spread. Intrafish, 20 March. Available at: https://www.intrafish.com/fisheries/alaska-pollock-industry-scrambles-to-protect-fleet-from-coronavirus-spread/2-1-775063 (accessed 10 April 2020).
Sapin R (2020b) As Copper River salmon season nears, industry prepares for the coronavirus “new normal.” Intrafish, 3 April. Available at: https://www.intrafish.com/fisheries/as-copper-river-salmon-season-nears-industry-prepares-for-the-coronavirus-new-normal/2-1-786109 (accessed 10 April 2020).
Sapin R (2020c) Bristol Bay leaders want incoming workers to test negative for coronavirus ahead of salmon season. Intrafish, 4 April. Available at: https://www.intrafish.com/fisheries/bristol-bay-leaders-want-incoming-workers-to-test-negative-for-coronavirus-ahead-of-salmon-season/2-1-788109 (accessed 10 April 2020).
Stuff (2020) Coronavirus: Sealord offers seasonal work to people whose jobs have been affected. Stuff, 24 March. Available at: https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/health/coronavirus/120535816/coronavirus-sealord-offers-seasonal-work-to-people-whose-jobs-have-been-affected (accessed 10 April 2020).
Photo Source: Photos by Teresa DeSimone from Cordova, Alaska and used with permission. In order: Main St in Cordova March 27, 2020 and of some of the fleet awaiting Spring.