POLARIS research group in Alaska
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Bristol Bay, Alaska is home to the world's largest commercial sockeye salmon fishery, attracting thousands of fishermen, crews, and seasonal workers and tripling the region’s population. Running from early June to late July, the short salmon season is facing a new challenge this year, the coronavirus pandemic.

Penn State is part of a research team conducting surveys with fishery participants and residents to better understand the costs and benefits of varied mitigation policies and is developing pandemic preparedness scenarios. This collaborative project is being funded by a $200,000 National Science Foundation RAPID Response grant.

The concern for this year’s fishing season stems from the 13,000 commercial fishers, crew, and fish processor workers who are descending upon the Bristol Bay region. The largest hospital in the region only has 16 beds and two ventilators and, as of May 2020, was not prepared for an outbreak of coronavirus.

Because the overall economic value of the fishing season is estimated to be around $1.5 billion dollars and the region is dependent on the fishing industry, canceling the season is not economically feasible.

“Commercial fishing is a significant contributor to local jobs, income, and local tax base, with the value of the fishery extending beyond the region and Alaska. The cancellation of the salmon season would result in a significant income decline for a majority of residents until the fishing season next year,” said principal investigator Guangqing Chi, professor of rural sociology and demography and public health sciences at Penn State.

However, many of the rural communities in this region were previously decimated by the 1918 Spanish flu. “The epidemic of 1918, and more localized epidemics in the 1930s, are still recent events for rural communities in Alaska, and particularly Alaska Native communities,” said principal investigator Davin Holen, coastal community resilience specialist with Alaskan Sea Grant at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “Statewide quarantines to help control the coronavirus outbreak are bringing to the forefront the experience of events that have shaped rural communities in Alaska, even in the present.”

Taking a cue from drastic measures imposed during the 1918 flu outbreak that spread via mail carrier and traders to remote villages, many of the area villages have banned all visitors and mandate anyone who leaves during the outbreak be quarantined for 30 days. Several villages are banning all flights except in the case of medical emergencies.

Chi leads a research team that had already established a presence in the region through another NSF funded project, “Pursuing Opportunities for Long-term Arctic Resilience for Infrastructure and Society (POLARIS).” The project, which began in 2019, will establish a network of platforms and tools across the Arctic to document and understand the Arctic's rapid social, demographic, ecological and geophysical changes.

As part of this project, in February 2020, POLARIS project researchers visited Dillingham, Alaska, where two of the largest commercial fishing processors are located. Team members held meetings with community stakeholders to coordinate and collaborate on the multi-year, transdisciplinary project studying how people adapt to coastal erosion, changing food sources, and changes in environmental risk due to a changing Arctic.

Because of POLARIS and other extensive work in the region, the research team has built strong relationships with local decision makers, including the city government, tribal government, and industry and health care professionals.

“These connections will allow us to better parameterize models and effectively disseminate relevant pandemic preparedness scenarios to Bristol Bay residents,” said Chi, who also serves as director of the Computational and Spatial Analysis Core of the Population Research Institute and Social Science Research Institute, at Penn State.

“Our research can inform local policy makers for this season and can help them prepare for the 2021 season and another possible wave of COVID-19,” said Lance Howe, associate professor of economics and lead principal investigator from the University of Alaska Anchorage. “Acting now will also allow us to send surveys to permit holders (captains) and to interview managers of commercial fish processors as well as local residents and decision-makers.”

Currently, the team is conducting the first wave of online surveys and preparing for a second wave of surveys in February and March of 2021. The surveys will determine demand for medical resources, risk perceptions and responses, and measure risk preferences.

Kevin Berry, assistant professor of economics at the University of Alaska Anchorage, will utilize socio-ecological modeling to estimate the probability of a COVID-19 introduction and the rate of spread under various parameters — for instance, delayed season openings or partial closures of the commercial fishery. The model will also provide projections on how quickly resources in Dillingham could be overwhelmed by an uncontrolled outbreak, as well as under various scenarios of social distancing both within the fishing fleet while on-shore and for the community at large.

“The surveys and modeling will inform residents and allow local community stakeholders including local government, health care, tribal governments, and the commercial fishing industry to make informed decisions,” said Chi. “Results will be distributed to local decision-makers to aid in developing planning scenarios and can inform future cost-benefit analysis for communities facing similar decisions.”

The team also includes Hannah Hennighausen, post-doctoral researcher in economics at the University of Alaska Anchorage; Todd Radenbaugh, professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Bristol Bay Campus in Dillingham; and Gabe Dunham, the marine advisory program agent with Alaskan Sea Grant in Dillingham.

Additional support for the POLARIS project is being provided by Penn State’s Social Science Research Institute, the Institutes of Energy and the Environment, the College of Agricultural Sciences and the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.