Alaska Confronts COVID: State May Close Salmon Season Just as Energy Projects Lose Funding

Bristol Bay Salmon Fishing        Photo: Nick Hall, Save Bristol Bay

Alaska’s Bristol Bay is home to the world’s most valuable wild salmon fisheries (and also an infamous mining project – the Pebble Mine) but salmon towns in the region lost 30% of their population to the 1918 Spanish Flu and locals fear it will happen again due to lack of medical capacity to handle the virus, unless the Governor, Republican Mike Dunleavy, shuts down fishing for this summer.  The Washington Post reports that local communities are divided – even with all possible safeguards, the risks will be high.  Meanwhile, Politico reports that Republicans in Congress are seething over the refusal of big banks to fund oil and gas projects in the Alaskan Arctic and have warned them that that ruling out specific fossil fuel projects “comes with risks.”

Why This Matters:  Alaska could be hit hard by a double whammy of no fishing this year and the loss of new oil and gas jobs in the future.  This is more evidence that the pendulum is swinging away from fossil fuels.  Members of Congress can pressure big banks all they want, but it seems unlikely to change the market forces going against oil and gas right now, especially when it involves development in the inhospitable Arctic environment.  

Alaska Fishers Want COVID Precautions

Governor Dunleavy has promised to put in place enough safety rules to allow the fishing season to go forward safely — measures like a two-week mandatory quarantine period for all fishers before they go out. But local officials want more precautions like widespread testing for workers and fishers before they fly into the region. There have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus in the region yet, and very few in Alaska overall, but with only two ventilators and two dozen beds suitable for COVID patients, it is not hard to imagine what would happen if an outbreak occurred during the season.  And fishers are out for days at a time, so an outbreak onboard a fishing vessel could be devastating.  And the state has lined up private planes that could be used for emergency evacuations from remote fishing lodges that cater to high-end recreational fishers.  But similar to National Parks, according to The Post, in places like Sitka, “an island community along the Alaska Panhandle, a top medical official criticized a seafood company’s plans to bring in 450 seasonal plant workers from the Lower 48 states and Mexico as ‘naive’ and ‘contradictory to medical reason.’”

Banks Say No Thanks To ANWR

One by one the largest banks in the country — Morgan Stanley, Citigroup Inc., Goldman Sachs Group Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co., and Wells Fargo & Co. — have ruled out financing Arctic oil and gas development over the last four months. Bank of America Corp. is the only major U.S. bank still willing to fund these projects.  Financing is one of many hurdles for Arctic drilling, including the remote conditions and limited infrastructure in northeast Alaska that make it quite expensive to find and develop crude.  The Interior Department continues preparing plans for leases to drill in the 1.56-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska expressed frustration at the banks’ decision telling Politico, “The federal government fully supports these guys across the board in so many ways, including a bailout 15 years ago. Now they get to pick and choose who’s favored and who’s not favored in the U.S. economy based on what? Political pressure that they get at cocktail parties in Manhattan?”

H/T to The Washington Post for winning a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the climate crisis.

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