Covid-19 outbreaks keep sidelining vessels owned by one of Seattle’s largest fishing companies. No one’s entirely sure why.

American Seafoods says it has adopted adequate safety precautions. But that hasn’t prevented Covid-19 outbreaks on three of its boats—including an incident as recent as late July.

Late last month, sickness took hold of a fishing trawler that had left port in Seattle in June. The sick crewmembers spurred the American Triumph, part of a fleet of six vessels owned by American Seafoods (ASF), to dock in Alaska, where more than 80 crewmembers soon tested positive for Covid-19.

This wasn’t the first Covid-19 outbreak aboard a vessel owned by ASF, a Seattle-based seafood company that bills itself as one of the largest at-sea processors of fish in the world. In early June, three of the company’s Seattle-based fishing trawlers—including the Triumph—were forced to dock in Bellingham, a college town a couple hours north of the Emerald City, after crewmembers fell ill with Covid-19.

Any outbreak on a commercial fishing vessel—many of which are roughly the length of a football field, with the ability to process and freeze hundreds of tons of fish right on board—is noteworthy. But what makes the recent Alaskan outbreak aboard the American Triumph particularly noteworthy is that it represents the second such outbreak aboard that same vessel during this fishing season. That’s despite ASF having taken seemingly thorough precautions against Covid-19 before the company’s vessels left port in May. The company had screened crewmembers for the virus, tested them for antibodies, and quarantined them prior to setting sail. Other Seattle-area seafood companies have screened and quarantined crews on their vessels, too, and none have experienced outbreaks so far.

So why—even after imposing stricter measures—did the American Triumph experience a second outbreak? While some critics panned ASF’s earlier preventative steps as half-measures, the latest outbreak occurred only after ASF appeared to follow industry and government recommendations for preventing outbreaks of Covid-19 aboard fishing vessels. Just what went wrong?

It’s not surprising that fishing vessels would become potentially high-risk environments as the pandemic worsened. Like cruise ships, which became notorious Covid-19 hotspots in the early days of the outbreak, fishing trawlers tend to confine people in close quarters for prolonged periods of time.

“These people are four to a room. They’re in bunk beds. They share a bathroom with the four people [in the] adjacent [room]—so eight people total. People don’t wear a mask when they sleep.”

But several additional factors make fishing vessels susceptible to outbreaks: Living arrangements require people to cram into tight spaces together, sharing bunkrooms, dining areas, toilets, and other facilities.

“These people are four to a room,” said Dr. Marisa D’Angeli, a medical epidemiologist with the Washington State Department of Health’s Office of Communicable Disease Epidemiology. “They’re in bunk beds. They share a bathroom with the four people [in the] adjacent [room]—so eight people total. People don’t wear a mask when they sleep.”

The work environment, which requires people to work closely together in wet, chaotic circumstances, is no less fraught with transmission opportunities.

“It’s really noisy, so you have to yell and take your mask off to be heard,” D’Angeli explained. Both not wearing a mask and yelling are known to increase Covid-19 transmission rates.

For all these reasons, many fishing companies in Washington State, which boasts one of the biggest commercial fishing industries in the U.S., were quick to develop and adopt best practices.

Dr. Ann Jarris, CEO of Discovery Health in Seattle, which provides risk-management services to fisheries businesses (along with other remote workplaces), tells me she has not worked with ASF on any facet of the company’s Covid-19 preparation, prevention, mitigation, or response. But she has worked with government bodies and other companies, and outlined the preventative approach she developed and employs.

“We put together a pre-boarding fitness for duty screening recommendation for processing vessels in mid-April in collaboration with the University of Washington that recommended a 14-day ‘observation’ period with PCR and serology testing at the beginning and end of that 14-day period. Of the over 500 crew we put through that process, we have retested about 25% of them with both PCR and serology and have not seen any positives.”

Dr. Ann Jarris, CEO of Seattle's Discovery Health, said none of the fishing companies she works with have experience outbreaks of Covid-19. Left, a fishing boat in Washington's Puget Sound.

Dr. Ann Jarris, CEO of Seattle’s Discovery Health, said none of the fishing companies she works with have experience outbreaks of Covid-19.

Left, a commercial fishing boat in Washington’s Puget Sound.

iStock / bpper

This approach appears to be highly successful: All of the companies Jarris works with have had no cases or outbreaks on board to date.

Meanwhile, ASF’s workers have continued getting sick.

The Seattle Times reported on June 1 that ASF crewmembers had reportedly complained to family members in May that some colleagues were clearly ill while at sea. A subsequent Seattle Times piece on June 12 noted anonymous ASF crewmembers at sea on another Alaska-bound ASF trawler, the Ocean Rover, “reached out to [the paper] to express their dismay at the company’s decision to not make a June port stop in Bellingham for [Covid-19] screening.”

That same day, Dr. D’Angeli, the Washington State medical epidemiologist, sent a compliance letter to Mikel Durham, CEO of American Seafoods. In the letter, D’Angeli outlined two steps the state would require of ASF before it could resume fishing aboard the American Triumph: 1) thoroughly cleaning and disinfecting the vessel according to CDC guidelines; and 2) employing a mandatory 14-day quarantine for any crew, processors, observers, or others who will travel aboard the vessel, followed by a negative Covid-19 test.

D’Angeli also noted “evidence suggests that [American Seafood] workers are incentivized to minimize or conceal symptoms…. [and] that crew from the one of the ASF ships were not consistently wearing masks.”

“Evidence suggests that American Seafood workers are incentivized to minimize or conceal symptoms….and that crew from the one of the ASF ships were not consistently wearing masks.”

Other criticisms of ASF’s earlier protocols have emerged. Environment reporter John Ryan of KUOW, Seattle’s NPR affiliate, has covered Covid-19 outbreaks on fishing vessels since, well, even before they began. In May, Ryan reported on steps seafood companies were taking to avoid such outbreaks. But in June, Ryan suggested in an excellent report that ASF had skimped on its approach to quarantining crews before boarding. I reached out to Ryan, who stood by the contention.

“American Seafoods’ five-day quarantine was uniquely short, as far as I could tell,” Ryan told me by email. “The rest of the fishing industry was using 14-day quarantines, as recommended by health officials in Washington and Alaska.

“I was unable to get an answer from the company on why they chose such a short quarantine period, in contrast to medical recommendations and industry standards,” he said.

Ryan isn’t standing alone.

“They were using different protocols than the rest of the industry,” Joshua Berger, a maritime official with the Washington Department of Commerce, told Ryan. (Berger did not respond to repeated requests to comment for this Counter story.)

“That protocol, to me, does not make a lot of sense,” Geoffrey Gottlieb, an infectious disease physician at the University of Washington Medical Center, told NPR in early June.

I spoke briefly in June with ASF spokesperson Suzanne Lagoni, who told me in a subsequent email that American Seafoods “vessels have returned to fishing for Pacific Hake off the coast of Washington and for Wild Alaska Pollock in the Bering Sea.” Lagoni directed me statements posted on the company’s website and politely refused further comment.

Together, those press releases provide an illuminating chronology. The company’s first Covid-related press release, dated May 30, discusses the first case of Covid-19 aboard an ASF vessel, the American Dynasty. Company CEO Mikel Durham says the company “undertook extensive planning and sought the best advice to prevent Covid-19 from entering our vessels.” Another press release, issued one day later, declared a total of 85 crewmembers had tested positive for the virus. In it, Durham reiterated the company’s testing protocol.

On June 3, a new company press release reported that two other ASF vessels—the American Triumph and the Northern Jaeger—were docking in Bellingham, where crew were being tested for Covid-19. Those vessels had gone through the same pre-boarding protocols as the American Dynasty. Two days later, another ASF press release confirmed that more than two-dozen crewmembers from those vessels had tested positive for Covid-19.

By that time—with three ships sidelined and well over 100 employees ill—it was clear that existing practices weren’t working.

“We have sought advice on how to improve our crew safety net,” Durham said in the June 5 statement.

Experts haven't yet pinned down the cause of a second, more recent outbreak aboard the American Triumph—one that sidelined the vessel in late July (August 2020)

Experts haven’t yet pinned down the cause of a second, more recent outbreak aboard the American Triumph—one that sidelined the vessel in late July

ASF didn’t issue another press release for more than a month. Then, on July 19, ASF reported that 79 of the 119 crewmembers aboard the American Triumph had tested positive in Alaska. The vessel had been cleaned and had returned to sea on June 27.

“All crewmembers quarantined for a minimum of 14 days and passed all public health protocols in order to board the vessel,” the company said. (Interestingly, the July 19 press release was updated on July 22, and this particular quote no longer appears as part of the release. Since ASF refused to respond to requests for comment, it’s impossible to know whether this is merely an oversight or omission on ASF’s part—or if there’s some deeper meaning to the company having scrubbed the universal 14-day quarantine and protocol claims from its website.)

The latest ASF press release, issued July 22, contains a lengthy statement from CEO Mikel Durham.

“The story of how Covid-19 has impacted our fishing operations is well known,” she said. “We’ve had outbreaks on three of our vessels: American Dynasty, Northern Jaeger, and American Triumph. These have occurred despite our efforts to screen and test crews, place them in quarantine, and sanitize vessels and belongings before going to sea—all in coordination with public health professionals. Still, the virus reached us, just as it has so many others.”

Covid-19 outbreaks meant this year’s commercial fishing season in Alaska—the source of the vast majority of U.S.-caught fish, and the destination of ASF’s vessels—almost didn’t happen.

“There were times earlier this spring I didn’t know we’d be fishing or not,” Doug Vincent-Lang, Alaska’s Fish and Game Commissioner, told me. “But we pulled it off.”

Covid outbreaks meant this year’s commercial fishing season in Alaska—the source of the vast majority of U.S.-caught fish, and the destination of ASF’s vessels—almost didn’t happen.

In a May piece for The Counter, Bailey Berg highlighted Alaska residents’ concerns about the potential for the 12,000 seasonal fishing and processing crews that travel to work in Alaska every year to introduce and spread Covid-19 throughout the state. Some residents were calling for the salmon season to be cancelled. But having a functioning seafood industry is crucial to Alaska’s economy; seafood is Alaska’s largest export. Health concerns, Berg noted, were mostly countered by worries the state could miss out on the roughly $700 million the industry pumps into the local economy.

The state has kept the fishing season afloat by having a plan in place and sticking to it. As Berg reported, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy allowed the season to proceed, but put in place a series of strict measures, “including mandatory testing, requiring captains and managers to make exhaustive plans, and a two-week quarantine for arriving fishermen and processing plant workers.” In a letter, leaders from eleven seafood companies pledged to take a series of measures to “prioritiz[e] the health and safety” of the local community during the season.

This joint government-industry approach, as Berg detailed in a new piece for The Counter last week, has been a success. While some seafood industry employees have tested positive for Covid-19, she writes, the local community has mostly been spared.

But Washington State, in contrast to Alaska, put no such plan in place.

“The State of Alaska was the leader in issuing mandates specific to the fishing industry,” Dr. Jarris told me, noting also that Washington State “does not currently have any specific formal recommendations in place.”

“Washington State has not produced guidance for fishing vessels in the way Alaska has,” Dr. D’Angeli said.

Alaska’s plans were firm and clear but also realistic, neither anticipating nor requiring zero cases of Covid-19 among fisheries workers.

“The most important thing is the state never thought we wouldn’t have Covid-19 cases show up in the fishing industry,” Vincent-Lang, Alaska’s Fish and Game Commissioner, said. “Our goal was to prevent Covid cases from spreading from fisheries to larger local community. And I think we’ve been largely successful at doing that.”

Jarris agrees.

“I cannot tell you how proud I am of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska fishing industries,” she told me. “It has been an incredible experience to be able to work with stakeholders from companies, independent vessels, associations, regulators, public health, local communities, and government. For the vast majority of the fishing vessels and shore processors, these plans have been successful.”

In the final week in July, the bubble burst aboard the American Triumph, which had returned to sea a month earlier. Even with the newly beefed-up precautions ASF reportedly took, crewmembers still became ill at sea with Covid-19. Why?

Truth be told, Covid-19 outbreaks at sea are reasonably common. Frequent and lengthy outbreaks aboard cruise ships made headlines earlier this year. U.S. Navy Captain Brett Crozier was relieved of his duties this spring—and was then rumored to be up for reinstatement before being relieved again—after he expressed concerns over a crew outbreak on the aircraft carrier he commanded. Other navy vessels subsequently experienced similar outbreaks.

Fishing vessels around the world have also experienced outbreaks. In June, a Russian vessel was reported to have brought fish and Covid-19 to a South Korean port. In July, more than 50 of 70 crewmembers fishing on a vessel in Namibia tested positive for the virus. Also in July, 57 out of 61 crewmembers on an Argentinian trawler were found to have Covid-19.

While it’s not clear what preventative measures all those vessels took, if any, the 14-day quarantine employed by many seafood-industry vessels in the Pacific Northwest appears to have worked to date for everyone—save ASF.

While it’s not clear what preventative measures all those vessels took, if any, the 14-day quarantine employed by many seafood-industry vessels in the Pacific Northwest appears to have worked to date for everyone—save ASF. In June, Berger, the Washington Department of Commerce maritime official, told KUOW’s Ryan that “there have been no coronavirus cases on Washington-based ships. . .that followed the recommended protocols.”

That makes the second outbreak aboard the American Triumph downright puzzling. Experts haven’t yet pinned down the cause.

“I’d like to know about compliance with the quarantine,” D’Angeli said in an email. “Were some people quarantined at home, potentially having exposures to roommates, family members or others in the community[?] If quarantined in the hotel, were they all in private rooms, did they come out of rooms to socialize, have a smoke, etc.”

While D’Angeli says it’s possible experts’ estimate of the incubation period for Covid-19 are wrong, she doubts that’s the case, else “we’d be seeing outbreaks on other ships that use the 14-day quarantine.”

Despite the repeated outbreaks, American Seafoods appears unbowed.

“The [American] Dynasty and [Northern] Jaeger are back at sea and we look forward to having the Triumph rejoin them soon,” company CEO Durham said in her most recent statement.

Indeed, ASF is steaming ahead. The company, which is currently for sale, recently advertised for a new position: “Concierge—Quarantine & Travel Services.” While the position is based in Seattle, the description notes the job may require travel to Alaska.

Baylen J. Linnekin is a food lawyer, scholar, expert witness, adjunct law professor, and Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund board member. Linnekin’s first book, Biting the Hands That Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable (Island Press, 2016), reveals how regulations often proscribe sustainable food practices. Linnekin’s writings have appeared in the Boston Globe, N.Y. Post, Des Moines Register, Sacramento Bee, Reason, Huffington Post, VICE, Playboy, Wisconsin Law Review, Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly, Chapman University Law Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Seattle with his partner of more than 20 years.