25 July 2011

On Bristol Bay

About half the world’s supply of wild salmon comes from a system of rivers, lakes, and streams in western Alaska that empties into Bristol Bay, a relatively shallow body of water roughly 250 miles long and 180 miles wide. Every summer, 40 million sockeye salmon enter the bay in schools of hundreds of thousands and mill in the estuaries of half a dozen large rivers. In the span of about four weeks in June and July, the salmon move into the mouths of these rivers, slowly at first and then, as if responding to an invisible cue, all at once.

From the deck of a drift gillnetter on the flood tide of a clear afternoon in late June, you can look out across the water and see this happening. Four or five salmon will jump or roll simultaneously, and when you turn and scan the water you see that it’s not just a pocket here and there—salmon are jumping and splashing all around the boat, and you realize you’re sitting on perhaps half a million fish that have begun to make a push for the river.

The first time I realized this, it was terrifying. Our net spooled off the stern into the water and came alive with salmon, a quarter-mile of corkline and mesh writhing and splashing. As I watched the net sink (which nets are not supposed to do) it occurred to me that there were more fish moving under us than the entire fleet could possibly catch and that if we didn’t start bringing our gear in right away, we would be in danger of sinking. Over the next four hours we hauled 16,000 pounds of salmon on board a thirty-two foot boat, plugging the holds and bringing the waterline up to the scuppers. Later that evening, after off-loading the day’s catch, we caught another 8,000 pounds, and by the time I collapsed in my bunk early the next morning I had realized something else about Bristol Bay: it is abundant by nature, but overabundant by design.

The single largest source of wild salmon on the planet is also the world’s best-managed fishery. Bristol Bay has been carefully built up over the last forty years to become a $2 billion commercial and sport fishing industry that employs tens of thousands of people and makes up the bulk of the economy in southwest Alaska. Despite the negative feelings people often associate with commercial fishing, Bristol Bay is the epitome of a sustainable, renewable natural resource; absent a cataclysmic event or an environmental disaster, its salmon runs will keep coming in 40 million strong every summer in perpetuity.

But an environmental disaster is already in the works. About ninety miles inland, underneath river drainages and salmon streams that form a substantial part of the bay’s watershed, sits the single largest deposit of gold on the planet, the second largest deposit of copper, and a decent haul of silver and molybdenum ore. Pebble Mine, as it’s called, is thought to be worth more than $400 billion—enough to change global minerals markets and, for the mining companies that own the rights, to justify spending about $5 billion to build and operate a massive open pit mine in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness.

The mineable body of ore at Pebble is thirty times larger than the largest mine in Alaska. If built, the mine itself would be two miles long, a mile and a half wide, and about 1,700 feet deep. It would require the construction of more than 100 miles of roads and bridges, long-distance power transmission lines, pipelines for process water, pipelines for fuel, and a tailings dam 450 feet tall to contain the billions of tons of toxic mining residue the mine will produce. Any accident or earthquake (Pebble Mine sits on a fault line) will pollute Bristol Bay’s freshwater tributaries and wetlands with acid mine runoff, heavy metals, and process chemicals. Salmon spawning beds that drain into the Nushagak and Kvichak river systems, two of the bay’s largest, would be decimated by concentrated pollution of this kind. Even under what the mining industry considers to be “normal circumstances,” the risk of polluting the streams and rivers near the mine is all but certain, as evidenced by the water pollution at open pit mines like Bingham Canyon in Utah, which is comparable to what’s proposed for Pebble Mine.


My three brothers and I are third-generation Bristol Bay fisherman. We’re not scraggly-bearded old sea dogs or anything, but we’ve all worked at least one season in the bay. I’ve done five. When I tell people I’ve worked on a commercial fishing boat in Alaska they usually say, “Oh, like The Deadliest Catch?” No, not like The Deadliest Catch. Those guys are crab fishing on 120-foot ships in the Bering Sea in winter, and what they do is way more extreme and way worse, in terms of physical and psychological duress, than the show lets on. I once knew a crabber who recalled working in thirty-foot seas with a greenhorn, who was stuck with the job of climbing into crab pots and hanging bait. A huge wave hit them broadside and swept a crab pot overboard with the greenhorn inside it. When they finally pulled the pot up forty minutes later he was still in there, dead, and crab were eating his face.

Salmon fishing is not nearly as adventurous or dangerous. But it has its charms. When the fish are coming on board a dozen at a time, five to ten-pounders still alive and thrashing, and you’re pulling them out of the net as fast as you can, blood and slime flying and the captain yelling at everyone to go faster and clear the net before we drift into another boat or out of the district, it’s pretty exhilarating. And when the fishing is good you’re making about $500 an hour, which is also exhilarating. If you can make peace with the realities of living at sea for five or six weeks on a boat the size of an RV with two or three other guys working twelve-hour stretches on very little sleep for days on end, pulverizing your hands until they cramp into fists every time you wake up, eating canned chili and corn for dinner pretty much every day, then it’s not so bad.

For me, it’s a family tradition. My grandparents moved to the Territory of Alaska in the early 1950s as part of a program to establish schools in remote native villages. A few years later, they began teaching in Naknek, a village at the northeast end of Bristol Bay that has served as a major point of entry since the first commercial cannery began operating there in 1884. Up until 1951, there was a ban on motorized fishing boats in the bay. A cannery-owned barge would tow the fleet of sailboats out in the morning and back at night. Once the ban was lifted and fishermen were no longer tied to the cannery barge, they equipped their sailboats with outboard motors and struck out on their own. My grandfather, a World War II Navy veteran, decided to try his hand at commercial fishing as a way to earn extra income during the summer. He did well for himself and eventually bought into the limited entry permit system established by the State of Alaska in 1973, holding one of the original 1,800 commercial driftnet permits for Bristol Bay.


Alaska’s economy has always been based on resource extraction in one form or another. Until the discovery of North Slope oil in 1968, its foundation was commercial fishing. The discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay fundamentally changed the state’s economy, and residents have come to rely on the benefits of oil revenue in the form of zero income taxes, generous state services, and annual cash payouts in the form of the Permanent Fund Dividend. But as Prudhoe Bay gradually dries up, state officials are hoping that natural gas and mining developments will fill the gap. Absent direct federal intervention from the EPA, which announced in February that it would take a closer look at Pebble Mine, the project’s stakeholders have ever reason to think the state will acquiesce, no matter the longterm cost.

The majority stakeholder in Pebble Mine is London–based Anglo American, a global mining behemoth with an abysmal environmental record. The company has already secured ownership of mining claims, applied for rights to about 35 billion gallons of ground and surface water annually, and won support from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, and many state and federal lawmakers. All of this has occurred in what Anglo American insists is merely an exploration phase.

And the next phase is crucial. Last year, Anglo American spent $73 million on test mines and engineering for an uncompleted prefeasibility study. This year, it’s spending $91 million to complete a detailed project proposal and begin applying for all necessary permits. Construction could begin as soon as 2012. The companies insist that critics should “wait and see” what they’re proposing before jumping to conclusions about the mine, and most politicians have echoed this line. In Washington, Senator Lisa Murkowski has refused to take a position until the companies submit a permit application. But this “wait and see” stance is disingenuous for the simple reason that no mining company has ever been denied a permit in Alaska.

The ambivalent posture of elected officials stands in stark contrast to the position of Bristol Bay residents. At least 80 percent oppose the mine, according to polls, as do almost all sport and commercial fishermen. Tattered “No Pebble Mine” flags fly from almost every vessel’s rigging and any fisherman on the bay will, if prompted, go off about the mine. This spring, a local group created the Save Our Salmon initiative, which it hopes to place on the local general election ballot this October. The initiative proposes requiring voter approval for any resource extraction activity that could harm salmon runs or pollute the watershed. In response, Pebble Limited Partnership—the name of Anglo American’s Pebble operation—sued, arguing that the borough doesn’t have the resources or expertise to consider large-scale project applications. Lawsuits have become the PLP’s standard response to opposition; the group filed suit in 2007 to keep a similar statewide proposition off the ballot but lost its case before the Alaska Supreme Court. Oral arguments for the Save Our Salmon initiative took place last month and a court decision is pending. 

What’s clear is that Bristol Bay residents don’t need to wait and see the details of the proposed mine because they know the grim reality: no open pit mine comparable in size and scope to Pebble has ever operated without polluting the groundwater around it. The methods used in open-pit mining almost guarantee it because they result in massive tailings ponds that contain sulfides, toxic minerals, and, in the case of gold ore, cyanide. The two tailings ponds proposed for Pebble Mine would be 700 feet deep, have a footprint of twelve square miles, and likely contain about 3 billion tons of toxic waste. This is why Anglo American would have to build a 450-foot-tall dam less than fifteen miles from Alaska’s largest body of fresh water, Iliamna Lake, and ninety miles from Bristol Bay.


Bristol Bay is flat and gray and empty. It’s not breathtaking in a way that signals its value. Since the Pebble Mine affair caught the attention of the national media, the bay has been described as “pristine” and “untouched,” neither of which is remotely true.

The truth is that the bay is home to the world’s largest wild salmon runs, and that the fishing industry leverages the full force of modern technology. In the early 1970s, a combination of aggressive fishing and lack of state oversight and regulation produced record low wild-stock runs. State lawmakers responded by creating the limited entry permit system, imposing rigorous fisheries management based on applied science, and establishing modern salmon hatcheries throughout the state. This worked, and Alaska’s runs have been spared the fate of salmon fisheries elsewhere in the US. In 2008 and 2009, commercial salmon fishing off the coasts of California and Oregon was completely shut down after the fewest number of Chinook salmon ever recorded made their way up the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers to spawn. Overfishing and habitat damage killed the wild Atlantic salmon fishery decades ago, and with several populations listed as endangered, it’s unclear if the species will survive at all, much less recover enough to be harvested commercially.

Bristol Bay is not untouched and it is not pristine—but neither is it polluted and overfished. The men who fish it are not saints, but neither are they rapacious monsters. They have in fact emerged as unlikely champions of regulation and environmental protection. In response to the threat of Pebble Mine, commercial fishermen have forged an implausible coalition with Native Alaskans, seafood companies, and environmental groups. But none of these groups is more staunchly and unanimously opposed to the mine than the fishermen. They know that their livelihoods, and indeed an entire way of life that defines them, are tied to the longterm health of the bay. They also know that as a model for sustainable, large-scale commercial fishing, Bristol Bay is our last, best hope, and that Pebble Mine will eventually destroy it.

Image: The Lois Anderson and the Manatee, Naknek River, Bristol Bay, Alaska, 1983. From Timberline1955.

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