This editorial appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:
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Opponents of the proposed Pebble Mine wanted the Alaska Board of Fisheries to back a fisheries refuge for the Bristol Bay drainage, a move intended to block mining development in the area.
Supporters of the mine, however, said the fisheries refuge designation isn't needed and existing state rules are sufficient to protect the area if the Pebble Mine goes into development.
After hearing from both sides, the Board of Fisheries decided to get more information on the most loudly debated resource development issue in the state. The board voted unanimously earlier this month to set up a panel to evaluate whether Bristol Bay fisheries need more protection.
Northern Dynasty has spent millions of dollars exploring the Pebble deposit and its wealth of gold and copper, and intends to spend millions more before deciding whether to seek permits to operate a mine at the site, upriver from Bristol Bay. Though the mining company says otherwise, opponents of the project say toxic runoff and changes in water flow would endanger the region's valuable salmon runs.
The Board of Fisheries cannot designate an area as a fisheries refuge - only the state Legislature can do that - but supporters of the refuge proposal wanted the board to recommended such a move to lawmakers. They argued that only a refuge designation could adequately protect key salmon spawning and rearing areas and water quality in the region.
The board declined to endorse the refuge, but members assigned some serious work to the panel it set up to consider the issue:
Review existing protections for Bristol Bay fisheries and decide whether more safeguards are needed.
Review options for additional protections, including a fisheries refuge.
Consider whether the proposed refuge should be expanded to include more river drainages.
And monitor any legislation related to the region and report back to the full board.
It's not a startling action, but it's the right move at the right time.