Alaska’s Bristol Bay, Seafood & Jobs in Peril

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Ben Knight / Felt Soul Media

 

By Bonnie Gestring of Earthworks. Earthworks is an EarthShare member organization dedicated to protecting communities and the environment from the impacts of irresponsible mineral and energy development while seeking sustainable solutions.

There’s nothing better than grilled salmon in the summer.  And if it’s wild salmon, chances are it’s from Alaska’s Bristol Bay.  The rivers and streams of Bristol Bay support the largest wild sockeye salmon fishery in the world, and supply nearly 50% of the world’s commercial sockeye salmon.

Every year, millions upon millions of wild salmon make the epic journey from the ocean up the rivers and streams of the Bristol Bay watershed to reproduce -- supplying the world with healthy seafood; a feast for hungry bears, eagles and beluga whales; and 14,000 jobs along the way.

Now, plans for a massive open pit, copper and gold mine, known as the Pebble Mine, put the future of the fishery in question. If developed, the Pebble Mine would be the largest open pit mine in North America, straddling the headwaters of two of the most important salmon spawning rivers. 

Although the deposit is large, it is also low-grade. This means that excavating the gold and copper will generate an enormous volume of mine waste - up to 10 billion tons.  The mine waste, which must be managed in perpetuity, would be stored in vast ponds behind a series of dams as high as 685 feet – higher than the Washington Monument.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently completed a study of the risks to the fishery if the Pebble deposit is mined.  The study, released in June 2012, found that even under routine operation the mine footprint alone would result in the direct loss of 55 to 87 miles of streams and thousands of acres of wetlands – important wild salmon habitat. The science is clear.  Large-scale mining will have lasting consequences for Bristol Bay’s wild salmon.

Everything in Bristol Bay depends on salmon – the economy, the ecology and the culture.  The Alaska Native cultures there – the Yup’ik and Dena’ina -- are two of the last intact, sustainable salmon-based cultures in the world. These communities continue to rely on wild salmon as their primary source of food.

With so much at stake, Alaska Native Tribes, commercial fishermen and others have asked the EPA to step in and protect the fishery using their authority under a special provision of the Clean Water Act.  Section 404c allows the EPA to prohibit the disposal of mine waste in the waters and wetlands of Bristol Bay if the science shows that the fishery could be harmed.

These local efforts to protect Bristol Bay are supported by an unusual and diverse coalition, including jewelry retail companies, supermarkets, investors, chefs, churches, sportsmen, and conservation groups.

"There are some special places where mining clearly does not represent the best long-term use of resources. In Bristol Bay, we believe the extraordinary salmon fishery clearly provides the best opportunity to benefit Southwestern Alaskan communities in a sustainable way. For Tiffany & Co. - and we believe for many of our fellow retail jewelers - this means we must look to other places to responsibly source our gold," stated Mike Kowalski, CEO of Tiffany & Co.

Wild salmon have suffered severe declines in much of the U.S., but the Bristol Bay watershed, with its intact landscape and clean waters, continues to provide a stronghold for huge runs of wild salmon. 

This is an important time for the public to weigh in with the EPA about the future of the fishery. Take a moment this summer to enjoy some Alaska wild salmon, and be sure to send a message to the EPA on behalf of clean water, wild salmon and thousands of hardworking commercial fishermen.

Visit Earthworks’ site to read and download the US EPA Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment Key Findings.  For more information about how you can get involved, visit www.ourbristolbay.com

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