The battle for Bristol Bay isn’t over

By David Aplin, interim managing director of the WWF U.S. Arctic program

The last time I stood waist-deep in one of Bristol Bay’s crystal-clear streams, I was wishing I’d been wearing a pair of catcher’s shin guards.

It was the middle of July and schools of sockeye salmon bumped and bounced off my legs as they pulsed up stream. I stood in the way of thousands of highly motivated fish, most midway in their transformation from the bright silver scales they’d sported in the north Pacific to the deep red color they’d wear to their natal streams at the end of their epic lifecycles. It was a spectacle of nature that certainly left lasting impressions.

My experience was typical for Southwest Alaska during salmon season, but this special place and its ways of life are in danger. These scores of salmon could be gone in a flash if government authorities allow the development of the potentially dangerous Pebble Mine. And this will mean trouble for fishermen, wildlife, native communities and the like.

Proposed by the Pebble Partnership, Pebble Mine is planned right in the heart of the Bristol Bay watershed, the Ohio-size chunk of land that surrounds one of the most productive wild salmon fisheries on the planet. The threat of developing Pebble Mine has loomed for decades. So much so that local tribes, businesses, communities and fishermen asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take a close look at the mine’s potential impacts on the region.

The exhaustive EPA study took three years and gathered and analyzed the best available science. It also carefully considered public input. In the end, the analysis provided the foundation for a series of protections to safeguard Bristol Bay from potentially devastating mining activities.

If the mine moves forward, it could mean miles of lost salmon streams. It is also planned in an active seismic area, which creates the horrifying possibility of a release of acid mine wastes into the bay if an earthquake should occur.

Time and time again, the people of Bristol Bay, the State of Alaska, and the United States have said overwhelmingly that the risks associated with development of the Pebble Mine are too great. Bristol Bay’s sustainable ecosystems and all of the values they support should not be compromised. Local business leaders don’t want it. The region’s tribes don’t want it. And more than a million Americans have gone on record demanding that this national treasure be protected.

Yet, despite strong public opposition to the mine, new leadership at the EPA has changed the agency’s long-standing course and withdrawn proposals to protect Bristol Bay. This decision sweeps aside a years-long public process, ignoring the concerns of fishermen, communities, Alaskans and Americans and putting one of the planet’s most sustainable fisheries at risk.

This past summer, more than 56 million sockeye salmon returned to the rivers and streams that flow into Bristol Bay. Along the way, beluga whales, eagles, bears, rainbow trout, and countless other species took advantage of this movable feast.  Other species – including moose, caribou, and beaver – benefit indirectly from this salmon migration via the transfer of marine nutrients that fertilize the wetlands, forests, and tundra of this vast watershed.

For centuries, people have also depended on the Bay’s bounty. Scores of coastal and inland communities from Igiugig to Aleknagik have relied on summer salmon runs to provide the primary protein source for their families. A vital and vibrant commercial fishing industry has flourished in Bristol Bay for more than 125 years. This year’s harvest exceeded 37 million fish. Fishing provides14,000 paying jobs, supports an industry valued at $1.5 billion a year and feeds people across the U.S. and around the world. In essence, the Bristol Bay watershed is perfect for salmon.

Now, all of that is in severe danger. And as citizens of this beautiful country, we need to know that our government is following due democratic process. That our voices are being heard and that our natural resources, on land and water, are being valued and protected.

Bristol Bay’s communities, tribes, commercial fishermen, anglers, most Alaskans, many of America’s most dynamic conservation groups, and more than 800,000 people from across America certainly don’t want to fight this battle again. But we’re ready if we have to. Please join us, and don’t forget your shin guards.

Interim managing director of WWF’s U.S. Arctic program David Aplin poses for a portrait next to a mural by Alaskan artist Apayo Moore. Bristol Bay, Alaska, United States. © Paul Colangelo/WWF-US

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