By JJ Waters
It’s been called a fisherman’s dream, an outbacker’s panacea, a bird lover’s paradise. It’s the quintessential Alaskan wilderness and considered to be one of the most pristine, unspoiled and invaluably intact ecosystems still in existence on planet earth. Every image conjured in one’s mind of the beauty, majesty, and outright “wildness” of Alaska could be illustrated in a place known as Bristol Bay.
Located in Southwest Alaska, on the Bering Sea, Bristol Bay’s 40,000-square-mile watershed is comprised of nine rivers, numerous lakes, streams, and ponds, and thousands of acres of wetlands. Boasting five different ecosystems—marine, river, tundra, boreal forest and lake—it’s one of the most diverse and prolific environments in North America.
Home to the world’s largest wild sockeye salmon fishery, this single region provides nearly half of the entire global consumption of wild sockeye salmon each year. Every species of Pacific salmon (and another 24 species of fish, 190 birds, 40 terrestrial animals) rely on the healthy ecology of the Bristol Bay watershed for their survival. From the tiniest mud worm to the largest grizzly, every creature, including man, could not survive without the salmon that make their way to Bristol Bay each summer. And it’s not just commercial fishing that thrives. The subsistence harvest supports thousands of native Alaskan tribesmen, women and children. Bristol Bay boasts one of the largest sportfishing economies in the state, bringing in thousands of anglers each year to try their luck fly fishing or spin casting for sockeye, king, coho and chum salmon, rainbow trout, Dolly Varden, grayling, and northern pike. Ask just about any fisherman you know, and I bet they’d tell you that the opportunity to fish these pristine waters at least once in a lifetime is high on their bucket list.
Bristol Bay Fishery by the numbers ($ annually):
$1.5 billion economy
14,000 jobs (commercial fishermen, guides, processors, lodge owners, tourism operators, etc.)
160 million pounds salmon valued at $310 million (wholesale)
$90 million tourism tax and license fee revenue
37,000 individual sportfishing trips (1/3 out of state visitors)
30 Alaska native tribes
Total Pop. 7,259
For thousands of years, Bristol Bay has remained virtually unchanged. But that could change…in a big way. While most consider the salmon industry in Bristol Bay an axiomatic gold mine, it is the gold that lies beneath that threatens the future of what lies above.
Alaska has a rich history and robust economy from fishing and tourism, but it’s no secret that a large portion of its economy has been driven by oil drilling and mining. Mining represents the fifth largest industry behind petroleum, government, fishing and tourism. These rich, natural resources of oil, minerals, forests, and fish, and the continual choice to preserve and protect, or to extract and exploit has created clashes among Alaskans. But one such conflict has done just the opposite—the proposed Pebble Mine.
It’s a battle that’s been raging in the Bristol Bay region for nearly a decade. On one side is Northern Dynasty Minerals, a Canadian-based mining company; and on the other side, a coalition of opposition from Alaska Regional Native Corporations, commercial and recreational fishermen, guides, chefs, environmental groups, NGOs hunting guides, outfitters and hundreds of other businesses. Mineral exploration began in the late 1980s, but the proposed mine did not receive much national attention until the early 2000s, when Northern Dynasty began exploring in earnest (see timeline). The proposed Pebble site is situated about 15 miles upstream from Lake Iliamna in the Bristol Bay watershed and is purported to hold the largest known undeveloped copper ore body in the world, estimated to contain $300+ billion worth of recoverable copper, gold and other metals. From an economic standpoint, one might see why it’s so attractive. Many believe there is no amount of money worth the consequential economic, cultural and environmental disaster that could come from a project like Pebble.
Unlike the Klondike gold rush period in the early 1900s, where precious metals were extracted from rich veins on a small scale, today’s mines (like Pebble) hold mostly low-grade ore that require behemoth open-pit operations. To make the mine most profitable, Pebble would have to be as large as Manhattan and as deep as the Grand Canyon. Just to obtain one single pound of ore, miners would have to sift through and eradicate 99 pounds of rock. Chemicals used to separate the gold and copper deposits from the rest of the rock create toxic waste that must be contained on-site. Dams would have to be built to handle billions of tons of mine “tailings” to keep it from contaminating the surrounding environment—forever. “Tailings” are the mud-like toxic waste left over from the chemical process of separating the valuable part of the ore from the invaluable. According to the EPA, the mine would have the potential to destroy 94 miles of streams and 5,350 acres of wetlands, ponds, and lakes…and that doesn’t take into account the additional socio-economic and environmental impact from the infrastructure required to build such a project.
Matt Luck has been a commercial fisherman in Alaska for 40 years. The founder of Pride of Bristol Bay, he and his family sell traceable and sustainable Bristol Bay salmon nationwide. Regarding the proposed Pebble Mine, Luck says, “This issue has brought every stakeholder together like none other. There’s no place like Bristol Bay in the world. It is truly a global treasure, an incomparable cold-water fisheries habitat.
“Consequences created from the development of the Pebble Mine have the potential to rival the environmental disaster caused by the grounding of the Exxon Valdez on March 24, 1989.” The Exxon Valdez was the worst oil spill in North American history to date, spilling 11 million gallons of oil into the pristine waters of Prince William Sound, Alaska. Luck, a resident of Cordova, Alaska, at the time of the spill, remembers vividly the social, economic and environmental havoc that rained down upon the region for years after that catastrophic event. Luck comments, “The oil industry said it could never happen, and now we are hearing the same rhetoric from the proponents of the Pebble project, and quite frankly, it’s frightening.”
There’s reason to worry about Pebble. Proponents of Pebble Mine contend that the mine plan is safe, and strict measures would be taken to protect the environment. The same was said about Polley Mine. But on August 4, 2014, a tailings pond dam burst at Mount Polley, an open-pit copper and gold mine in British Columbia, Canada, spilling six billion gallons of toxic waste. Within four days, the 1.5-square-mile sludge pond was virtually emptied into nearby lakes and streams. Arsenic, copper, nickel, and lead, contaminated drinking water and salmon spawning grounds. Mine safety experts called it “the largest environmental disaster in modern Canadian history.” Could something like that happen in Bristol Bay?
Nelli Williams grew up in the Midwest, hunting and fishing, but since childhood dreamed of living in Alaska. “I always had the Alaska bug,” she says. After college, she did volunteer work, which ultimately led her to Trout Unlimited. Now, ten years later, she’s the Alaska program director for Trout Unlimited and living in Anchorage. “Pebble could happen in the next five years if people don’t speak out now,” she says. Nelli is encouraged by the diverse base of opposition, and how Alaskans are coming together to fight this threat. “But still,” she contends, “we’ve got a big fight ahead.” She’s ready.
Significant strides were made in 2014 when the EPA released its Proposed Determination to limit mining within the Bristol Bay region, citing the mine would cause irreversible and unacceptable damage to the Bristol Bay salmon ecosystem. In 2016, the Inspector General determined the EPA acted fairly in its assessment, the findings of which ultimately directed the agency to limit mining activities in Bristol Bay due to its unacceptable risk.
Then in 2017, the new EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and Pebble Limited Partnership CEO Tom Collier held a brief, closed-door meeting. Soon after, the administrator, in a shocking move, directed staff to withdraw important protections for Bristol Bay.
So, a new battle for Bristol Bay has begun. Nelli Williams contends that Alaska needs both state-based protections as well as long-term protection from the EPA and other federal agencies. Pebble’s next step is to begin the permitting process at both governmental levels; and the people of Alaska, the Lower 48 and the international community need to speak up for the future of this amazing place called Bristol Bay. Their life really does depend on it.
Elijah Lawson has spoken up, and he’s doing his part. For three decades, Elijah has fished Bristol Bay with his family. His love for salmon, for the culture and the unique way of life in Bristol Bay is evident in a documentary he created, In the Same Boat. “This issue is so BIG, and these people are so important,” he says, “I wanted to do something to make a difference. Everything subsists off salmon here. This is how I see it,” he continues, “the rivers and waters are the veins of the earth; the salmon rushing up to fill the rivers are the blood.”
“It’s simple,” he said. “If you don’t have salmon, you don’t have life.”