Bay is a sensitive sea of life

Posted: Friday, December 31, 2004

As a graduate fisheries student at the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences (Juneau Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks), I am very surprised at even the minimal support in Juneau for Kensington Mine in Berners Bay. Besides the few who would really profit from this project - the management of Coeur corporation and the mine supervisors - the legacy the mine will leave behind will be felt for decades and cause great harm to the rest of us.

Berners Bay is an essential spawning, feeding and nursery area for a variety of marine mammals, fishes and birds. Two high-energy forage fish species, herring and eulachon (hooligan), aggregate here in large numbers in spring and drive an explosion of life in the bay. Outside of Sitka, Berners Bay is the only large spawning area for herring and one of the most important spawning areas for eulachon in our region. Thousands of birds and dozens of sea lions, seals and humpback whales follow the fish. Berners Bay is a very complex ecosystem and a severe disturbance, as from a mine, to any of its intricate components may cause an irreversible collapse of the whole system.

Berners Bay is also a very important nursery habitat for a large variety of juvenile fish, a few of which are salmon, sandlance, herring and eulachon. The nearshore habitat of the bay allows young-of-the-year fish the most productive feeding area and a refuge from predators. It is also the nearshore habitat that, according to the just released final supplemental environmental impact statement, will be "the areas most at risk" from this project.

As we now know, it is absolutely essential for marine mammals, such as sea lions and seals, to gain a certain minimal fat content to successfully reproduce. Timely access to such a source of high-energy prey species, like eulachon and herring, is critical for the energetically demanding life stages of breeding and lactation in marine mammals. However, in Southeast Alaska, the eulachon spawning period, the time when they are available to avian and mammalian predators, lasts only a couple of weeks and can be as short as a few days. Even a small incidental disturbance that impedes eulachon and herring movement in and out of the bay can have grave long-term consequences for the whole ecosystem.

Construction and daily operation of the Kensington Mine will involve barge trafficking in and out of the bay and personnel ferries up to five times a day across the bay. Construction of ferry ports, docks, an industrial marine terminal, a 500-foot breakwater near Echo Cove and accompanying roads and parking lots will, in most likelihood, tremendously and irrevocably disrupt the migration patterns of fish and marine mammals. Gas and diesel run-offs and spills will accumulate, from wind and tides, in the nearshore areas and pollute one of the most fragile systems in the bay.

• Mikhail Blikshteyn is a graduate student in fisheries at the Juneau Center School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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