Obama Gives Bristol Bay Fishermen A Great Christmas Present!

By Carl Safina and Elizabeth Brown

Last month, President Obama used his executive power to protect Alaska’s Bristol Bay from future oil and gas drilling. Bristol Bay is a 52,000 square mile area (roughly the size of Florida), north of the Aleutian Islands that the largest surviving salmon populations on Earth swim through on their way to and from the rivers where they were born and where they will spawn and die. President Obama said, “It’s something that is too precious for us to be putting out to the highest bidder.” 1

Aerial view of braided wetlands and tundra that is typical in the pristine Bristol Bay region. Photo from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Aerial view of braided wetlands and tundra that is typical in the pristine Bristol Bay region. Photo from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Bristol Bay provides 40% of America’s wild-caught seafood – worth $2 billion annually. It also supports numerous recreational and subsistence fisheries, and a large tourism industry.

Bristol Bay is best known for its abundant wild salmon. Each year, all five species of salmon – sockeye, coho, king, pink, and chum – return to Bristol Bay to breed. These events are referred to as “salmon runs.” The most abundant is the sockeye, with an average of 37 million sockeye flocking to its waters each year 2. In fact, Bristol Bay hosts the largest remaining sockeye salmon run in the world. In addition to salmon, Bristol Bay fishermen fish for several other important species including Alaska pollock, halibut, sablefish, and king crab.

Sockeye Salmon. Photo by Carl Safina
Sockeye Salmon. Photo by Carl Safina.

Bristol Bay is also home to millions of seabirds and various species of marine mammals – sea otters, seals, walruses, humpback whales, beluga whales, and the North Pacific Right Whale.

The protection of Bristol Bay from oil and gas drilling is a great victory for Bristol Bay fishermen and its communities. Bristol Bay Native tribes, fishermen, local businesses, and conservation organizations have been fighting for this type of protection for years. They have taken great care to protect their valuable resources and create sustainable fisheries. (In contrast, in many others places around the nation coastal habitats have been degraded and the productivity of the coastal ecosystems reduced.) This is also a great victory for nature, so we should all rejoice!

Spawning Chum Salmon. Photo by Carl Safina.
Spawning Chum Salmon. Photo by Carl Safina.

But Bristol Bay is not completely free from harm yet. Federal officials are still considering a proposal for a massive gold and copper mine (Pebble Mine) in Bristol Bay 3. The mine would poison some of the most productive salmon rivers left on Earth. Lawsuits by Pebble Mine are attempting to block the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from using its powers to protect Bristol Bay from the mining activities 4. A decision on these lawsuits is expected in early 2015.

We urge that the mine proposal be denied. It would be insane to risk the greatest salmon populations on Earth and so many eternal living treasures for a few years of mere gold.

You can help by writing to congressional representatives, senators, and the President to ask them to protect Bristol Bay from Pebble Mine. You can find the contact information for your representatives here and your senators here. Or you can send a letter to all of congress here. Please also visit http://www.savebristolbay.org/ and support their efforts.



  1. White House Press Release on Protection of Bristol Bay and statement by President Obama
  2. About Bristol Bay
  3. EPA can stop Pebble Mine
  4. Pebble Lawsuit Delays the Protection for Salmon Alaskans Want

Human Journey


Meet the Author
Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, CNN.com and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.