As a Bristol Bay fishermen my family depends on our jobs and income from Salmon. I follow the debate around large-scale mining in the headwaters of Bristol Bay, Alaska’s greatest wild sockeye salmon fishery, as best I can. Because the State of Alaska has done nothing over the years to address concerns about large-scale mine development in the region I was among many Alaskans who asked the Environmental Protection Agency to get involved and address concerns over potential impacts to fisheries.
Here is the latest issue of concern: after being petitioned by Bristol Bay Native Tribes and permit holders in the Bristol Bay commercial salmon fishery to take proactive action to protect Bristol Bay’s wild salmon fishery, the EPA conducted a Watershed Assessment of the region. The Assessment, which sought to understand the potential risks posed by large scale metallic sulfide mining on Bristol Bay’s salmon ecosystem, was recently peer reviewed by a panel of 12 independent scientists who held open deliberations on the document in Anchorage last week.
And one point in particular made by one of the panelists grabbed my attention immediately. One expert said that reductions in the commercial catch of salmon could be one of the only forms of compensatory mitigation possible for a project of this kind.
The idea of reducing the commercial salmon fishery to make room for mining is extremely disturbing, especially because the Pebble Limited Partnership has repeatedly told fishermen and others that the proposed Pebble mine and salmon can co-exist. They promised they could mitigate the losses and have ‘no net loss.’ Yet, now it appears they could target commercial harvest reductions to mitigate for the loss of essential salmon habitat due to the impacts of mining.
As you may know, the EPA’s watershed report found that – even without a disaster or a series of leaks and spills – mining at the Pebble site would cause the loss of up to 87 miles of salmon streams and up to 4,300 acres of salmon wetland habitat. That alone is unreasonable, but the panel had other concerns that were big red flags as well.
Overall, they concluded that EPA underplayed the potential long-term impacts of mine development – including roads, pipelines, sewage treatment facilities and housing – on the watershed, fish and wildlife. They also pressed for more information on the effects of mining to migratory birds, other marine mammals and human health.
Several panelists expressed serious concern about how Pebble’s massive mine waste lagoons could be managed “in perpetuity.” The group agreed that the Watershed Assessment correctly notes that mines of this sort must not only outlast the mining companies, but also governments. The mine waste storage and treatment must be planned for 20,000-30,000 years as a start, or at least until the next ice age rolls through, in an area that is vast, wet, and has a complex hydrological system of ground and surface water interaction.
But, on top of all that, it is important for Alaskans to know that the discussion for mitigation involves limiting commercial fishing so as to allow more fish to get upstream to compensate for habitat loss (and nutrient deposit) due to mining. Doing so would mean being asked to trade one resource for another and putting over a century’s worth of Alaskan fishing and processing jobs at risk.
That is unacceptable to Alaska’s commercial fishermen and to the Bristol Bay fishery, the most productive and highest valued in the state. For my part, I reject the development of a behemoth like Pebble altogether in the heart of our salmon stronghold and certainly will not support decreasing Bristol Bay’s catch to make Pebble’s mine plan more acceptable to scientists or regulators.
• Brian Delay lives in Juneau and owns a Bristol Bay fishing operation
with his family.