Auke Bay was once like Berners Bay is today

Posted: Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Talking with old friends who recall the Auke Bay of 40 years ago, I get a picture of a place much like Berners Bay today: waters aboil with great balls of herring and schools of other prey fish. Seals and sea lions closing in to feast. Whales breaching, flushing tons of water and gobs of fish parts through their baleen to feed the screeching, swirling, diving gulls and eagles. For anyone who has seen these primordial bursts of energy and rejuvenation, these scenes of death for life are unforgettable.

There were quieter times as well: people laying hemlock boughs in spawning grounds, and later gathering the herring eggs attached to them. In migration times, rafts of diving ducks and other sea birds patrolling the bay, seeking out the bountiful feed. Porpoises following and finding salmon as they sought their home streams. Otters and minks sating themselves along the stream banks.

Auke Bay then was a lot like Berners Bay now.

Well, who wouldn't want to live in a place like that? So people came to this place on what was then the fringe of the city. And they built homes on the shore, and docks, and slips for boats. A few industrial enterprises joined them. And pretty soon Auke Bay was a busy place. Many pipes extended from houses and workplaces across the tidal zone and into the water. Through those pipes flowed waste of many kinds. Fueling and running boats contributed oil and gas to the mix. The many boats sped to and fro, their wakes eroding shoreline spawning and fish nursery grounds. And so on. It was a typical evolution without evil intent.

The upshot is a bay, still pretty, but biologically evermore sterile.

Auke Bay is polluted, and its bloom of pollution may extend as far out as Stephens Passage. Much has happened as a result. Herring are either gone or almost so. Flatfish have been infected by bacteria that cause cysts, and they are much reduced. Salmon and spawning streams have been hit hard. Without the feed sea mammals are rarely seen, and birds have little to attract them as well.

The simple fact is, to sustain a vibrant natural system, such as Auke Bay was and Berners Bay still is, optimal natural and clean environments are prerequisite.

Berners Bay is slated for intensive industrial development. The centerpiece of this development is the Kensington Mine. The proposed infrastructure for this mining and milling operation is spread all around Berners Bay, though the mine itself is northwest of the bay on the Lynn Canal side of the divide. The mill site would be on the bay side, up Johnson Creek, which drains into the north bay's sensitive estuarine zone. The tailings dump would be behind a dam on Lower Slate Lake, which drains into the Slate Creek salmon stream and beyond to the bay's Slate Cove. Transport facilities at Slate Cove and Cascade Point would provide the bases for a ferry system for Juneau mine workers, with three to five trips daily.

In addition, the mine would be dependent on a public project, the Juneau access road, for road transit from Juneau, around the head of the bay, and between the various mine facilities on the west side of the bay. This road would run up the entire east side of the bay, cross the estuarine zones of Antler, Lace, and Bremners rivers (where the silver tide of eulachon spawn), then circle south around the mountains on the west side, finally heading north to Skagway, passing the road outlet from the mine itself. This enterprise further depends on the Cape Fox Land Exchange legislation (12,000 acres of federal land being pushed for privatization), which would encompass the entire area associated with the west-side mining complex. Thus the total infrastructure is an integrated public-private affair, a huge part of which would be paid by taxpayers.

It is almost impossible to imagine that such a massive and intrusive undertaking, in all of its parts and pieces, would not totally transform Berners Bay from its present state of grace to one much degraded.

• William E. Brown is a retired National Park Service ranger-historian who came to Alaska in 1975. He is 74 years old and lives in Gustavus.

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