My Turn: Fish more precious than gold

Posted: Wednesday, February 28, 2007

As a commercial seafood processor who has lived and worked in Bristol Bay for 31 years, I know wild salmon are the bay's real gold.

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Each year, millions of fish pour into the bay and its drainages, putting food on the tables and paychecks in the pockets of thousands of Alaskans, not to mention pumping an estimated $400 million into Alaska's economy annually. Bills before the Legislature would help protect this resource from irresponsible mineral development.

Not only are the state's greatest wild salmon runs found in the watershed, so, too, are the world's biggest rainbow trout and brown bears, and one of the state's largest caribou herds. Bristol Bay is truly one of Alaska's outstanding natural treasures, and its long-term health is crucial for the prosperity of those who live there.

The vast majority of the seafood industry opposes the Pebble Mine, the massive open-pit project being pushed by the Canadian company Northern Dynasty Minerals. I see a groundswell of opposition to Pebble - from hundreds of Bristol Bay fishermen to statewide trade associations - and support for new long-term protections for Bristol Bay and its renewable resources.

Fishing prices are rebounding. Salmon run returns in the Nushagak River hit an all-time record last year. The king salmon season was exceptional, and the Kvichak River salmon run is making a big comeback. Why gamble a thriving fishery, a local economy and a healthy subsistence lifestyle on a mine that will benefit mostly a foreign corporation and its investors?

I find Northern Dynasty's recent ads disrespectful of local opinion. The majority of locals believe there is too much at stake to risk putting an enormous mine in the bay's headwaters. Polls conducted by Anchorage-based Hellenthal and Associates cite more than 70 percent opposition to the project.

Northern Dynasty obscures the fact that some of the state's most respected organizations and individuals oppose Pebble, because they believe world-class salmon and open-pit mines don't mix. These organizations include Alaska Independent Fishermen's Association, Bristol Bay Driftnetters Association, Trout Unlimited Alaska, United Fishermen of Alaska, Alaska Inter-Tribal Council and Nunamta Aulukestai.

Desperate to silence critics, Northern Dynasty asks Alaskans to pipe down until the Department of Natural Resources starts the clock ticking on permits. But given that the process favors permit approvals, Alaskans are wise to ask questions now. Based on Northern Dynasty's water-rights permit applications, we know the mine will: drain Upper Talarik Creek and the Upper and Lower Koktuli; generate hundreds of millions of gallons of toxic mine waste; and store waste behind earthen dams, two of which will be among the largest in the world. Both the dams and the mine will sit in a highly earthquake-prone area. Clearly, Pebble could forever alter Bristol Bay, and all Alaskans should have a voice in a decision of this magnitude.

This session legislators in Juneau are considering pro-Bristol Bay salmon bills designed specifically to protect salmon habitat and clean water. One of the more talked about measures would establish the Jay Hammond State Game Refuge in the Bristol Bay watershed. I encourage Alaskans to look closely at this legislation.

Before he died, former Gov. Jay Hammond told the Kodiak Daily Mirror, "I had said I could think of no place in Alaska where I'd less rather see the largest open-pit mine in the world than at the headwaters of the Koktuli and Talarik Creek, two world-class fishing streams and wild salmon spawning areas. ... There is a location where I'd even less wish to see such a mine: right in the middle of our living room floor at Lake Clark."

I could not agree more.

• Norm Van Vactor is Bristol Bay manager for Peter Pan Seafoods and divides his time between its corporate headquarters in Seattle and Dillingham.

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