Trident Seafoods’ boss charts safer course for Alaska fishing season

Trump signs executive order to strengthen seafood industry

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Joe Bundrant runs one of the world’s largest seafood companies. He knows that without healthy fishermen there will be no catch in the bountiful waters off Alaska’s coast.

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Mr. Bundrant, the 54-year-old chief executive of Trident Seafoods, has enforced a strict quarantine to protect people and keep business going during the critical summer fishing season. The pandemic could wreak havoc on the Last Frontier, and Mr. Bundrant wants to avoid a repeat of the 1918 pandemic that decimated Alaska’s remote communities.

Seafood companies enforce safety measures to protect workers against the spread of COVID-19. 

“If I’m going to put 145 people on a ship, including my son, and ask them not to get off the ship for six months, this is my only choice,” Mr. Bundrant said.

The $10 million effort includes isolating hundreds of workers for two weeks before sending them to sea and remote fishing villages, their rooms monitored by quarantined guards. On day 15, if they have tested negative for the virus, they are ushered by quarantined drivers to ships or private airplanes to begin a six-month fishing season in some of the world’s most remote waters.


There are consequences for those who refuse to play along. The six workers who tried to leave quarantine were fired.

Trident is the largest U.S. seafood company, employing 5,000 during the peak fishing season in Alaska. The state’s fishing industry catches 60% of the seafood in the U.S., including salmon, cod, halibut, rock fish and herring.

The fishing industry is seasonal, presenting a challenge for a company trying to prevent the spread of a virus in an industry considered among the most hazardous in the U.S.

For instance, one of Trident’s processing plants draws 850 seasonal employees to a volcanic island called Akutan, with a year-round population of 90 and one church, built by Mr. Bundrant’s father, Chuck, who founded Trident. Typically, those employees leave in April—after the first half of the season—and return in June.

Many stayed this year rather than risk bringing the virus back to the island with them. The company shipped in pool tables, yoga mats and Foosball tables to keep everyone occupied.


Mr. Bundrant is hardly an outsider in these parts. He lived in a trailer in Kodiak with his parents until the family moved to Seattle when he was 4 years old. As a teenager, he spent summers in Alaska, working as a fisherman or a processor, 16 hours a day, seven days a week.

His now-wife told him she didn’t want to marry a fisherman, so he stopped working on the boats. But his yearly travels to the region make the fishing communities of Alaska an extended family.

When the virus struck, he could hear the fear in the voices of the community leaders, many of whom are friends.

“There are certain communities in Alaska who don’t want us or our competitors to come. There’s so little infrastructure to deal with an outbreak,” he said.

Alaskans still think about the devastation the Spanish flu wrought on the region in 1918. The pandemic killed people there, mostly native Alaskans, at double the rate of the rest of the U.S., and some remote villages disappeared completely. Some historians say the disease came to Alaska via ships and spread quickly despite quarantines at ports.


Today, the state remains vulnerable to a pandemic, pockmarked with scattered, remote fishing villages with access to only the most basic medical facilities. Some communities have urged the state to cancel the summer fishing season altogether.

Mr. Bundrant says that by locking down his employees, he can prevent them from importing a deadly contagion this time around. He has also instructed engineers to coach front-line workers on how to fix boats and equipment themselves rather than make extra trips to the region. Workers are cordoned off from flight crew on the Alaskan Airlines flights he charters, with no contact throughout the flight.


Typically, Mr. Bundrant travels nearly 200 days a year, visiting plants and vessels. Now, he is staying home in Seattle for the first time in 40 years.

Last week, Mr. Bundrant put on a button-down shirt for only the second time in two months to meet the first fish to arrive from the start of Copper River salmon season at Seattle’s airport.

“Usually, the captain hands it to us. This year he set it up on a table, and we picked it up. Everyone had gloves and masks. Usually, a group of chefs have a cook-off. That didn’t happen this year,” he said.

Forgoing tradition, a local news anchor didn’t kiss the fish. And with restaurants closed, the fish was donated to front-line workers.


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