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Federal government needs to protect Bristol Bay fishery

Posted: January 23, 2014 - 1:07am

This week, fishermen in Bristol Bay and around Alaska have reason to applaud efforts to stop the proposed Pebble Mine, but we’re still waiting to rejoice. After nearly three years of research, two rounds of scientific peer review, and over one million public comments, the Environmental Protection Agency released its final Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment. While we are pleased with the thoroughness of the agency’s work, we won’t celebrate until the Obama Administration uses its Clean Water Act authority to protect the thousands of jobs and a way of life that depend on Bristol Bay.

As the assessment’s science clearly shows, the Pebble Mine would be an economic disaster for Bristol Bay and its commercial fishery. Even without accident, mining on the scale of Pebble would destroy up to 94 miles of the very streams where salmon spawn, and a total of 5,350 acres of the wetlands, lakes, and ponds that sustain this unique ecosystem and habitat. And as we’ve long known and the EPA acknowledges, the waste created by Pebble would have to be stored “long after mining concludes.” According to Pebble’s own documents, the waste generated by the mine could be as much as 10 billion tons.

What’s at stake for me and the thousands who rely on Bristol Bay is as clear as the damage the Pebble Mine would do to this resource. The Bristol Bay salmon fishery provides $1.5 billion in economic output spanning across Alaska and the lower 48, and 14,000 jobs depend on its sustainable returns of salmon. The Bristol Bay commercial fishery has been in existence for 125 years, following in the tradition of a Native subsistence culture that’s been around for thousands of years.

I have a personal stake in Bristol Bay. I own and operate a boat in Bristol Bay and have for the last eight years. Its prolific salmon runs provide income to support my family and put food on our table. I can’t afford to put my family or my crew’s livelihoods at risk by trusting a foreign mining company that wants to build North America’s largest open pit mine at the headwaters of the very rivers that support the world’s largest wild salmon fishery.

Fishermen are tired of the economic uncertainty Pebble Mine causes within the region, which is why we have been nearly unanimous in our opposition to the mine. With the danger so clear and present, there is no reason that Alaskans should be forced to wait any longer for permanent protections in Bristol Bay.

For such an important piece of legislation, the Clean Water Act’s mission is really quite simple. With regards to protecting habitats such as Bristol Bay, the Clean Water Act can be used to safeguard against discharge into waters that “will have an unacceptable adverse effect on municipal water supplies, shellfish beds and fishery areas (including spawning and breeding areas), wildlife, or recreational areas.” Such a standard is more than met through the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment.

While in Bristol Bay last year, the EPA’s Gina McCarthy heard from fishermen, lodge owners and guides, Alaska Natives, and many others about why this unique habitat needs protection. As her agency and the Obama Administration mull Bristol Bay’s future, I hope she remembers these voices and what’s at stake from the proposed Pebble Mine.

• Kevin Currier grew up in Juneau and has fished Bristol Bay for seven years on his boat, the F/V Deborah.

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