Sport fishing stays open, but restrictions will shape Bristol Bay’s summer tourism

Aiden Salmon fishing at the mouth of the Kvichak River on July 17, 2019. Igiugig normally does business with nearby sport fishing lodges. Now the community is hunkering down to protect against coronavirus. (Photo by Isabelle Ross/KDLG)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game released specific guidelines last week for people who want to sport fish in Alaska.

Sport and personal-use fisheries remain open, and the public may still travel to fishing locations. But guidelines issued by the state aim to eliminate exposure to communities near those destinations. Fishers are required to take precautions like social distancing and wearing masks.

They will also have to bring their own provisions from home to prevent them from going into communities for food or fuel, and must abide by the local mandates of their destination.

Alaska Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum said in a news conference that the state is meeting twice a week with a group consisting of sport and personal-use fishers.

“They’re trying to put together recommendations,” Crum said. “We’ve got members of both our health department team and our industry sustainability group talking with them about what are some of the protocols we can implement — other practices. Some of these things we can look towards to make sure we have some sort of action down there.”

Rick Green, special assistant to the Fish and Game commissioner, said the guidelines were put into place to fulfill subsistence needs for Alaskans.

“This thought was really for Alaskans to have the ability to get out and fill their freezers. With the 14-day quarantine mandate for any out-of-stater coming into Alaska, I don’t think we’re going to see the out-of-staters come in,” he said.

Summer tourism generates important revenue for Bristol Bay communities, like Igiugig. People start traveling to the village in June when lodges open for sport fishing.

The village council met last week to discuss the upcoming season.

“We’ve had lodges calling in and asking, ‘Do we even come out? Should we land and walk directly to the river and drive straight to our lodge with no interactions in the community at all? Or do you just not want us out totally?’” said council member Christina Salmon-Bringhurst. “But we told them as of yesterday, we’re taking this day-by-day because every week it’s something new.”

She said several families who own businesses in the village of around 70 residents also depend on that revenue.

“It would be sad to not have it open here, but at the same time our village council is not going to do anything to compromise the health of anyone here,” she said. “We’re so small that losing one person would be devastating for us. The health of our people is above and beyond anything else at this moment.”

Brian Kraft owns the Alaska Sportsman’s Lodge just south of the village — one of the businesses working with the community. The lodge averages around 500 guests in the summer. Tourists spend between $6,000 and $9,000 for three- or five-day trips, including airfare.

Kraft said the quarantine would have to be lifted for lodges to operate realistically.

“Not many guests come up here for 14 days,” he said. “Quite honestly, if quarantining is still in effect, masks and gloves are required and COVID-19 is still rampant throughout the country and spreading still, that’s not the experience we want to have. We don’t want to subject our clientele, the staff. Or if we have an influx in the community, we don’t want to be a part of that.”

Kraft also owns the Bristol Bay Lodge in Aleknagik. They average around 300 tourists per season.

Another regional lodge owner who asked not to be named is considering closing due to travel restrictions and quarantine requirements.