© Steve Baird

In Defense of Salmon

In Defense of Salmon

Scientists testify in support of a fish refuge for Alaska’s Bristol Bay.

Sarah O'Neal, Population Biologist, State of the Salmon
Sarah O’Neal, Population Biologist, State of the Salmon

Last December, I joined a large and diverse group of scientists, fishery interests and Bristol Bay residents in Anchorage, Alaska to testify in support of a proposal to recommend the establishment of a fish refuge in Bristol Bay watersheds.

Bristol Bay’s Kvichak and Nushagak watersheds are among the most productive salmon producing systems in North America and sustain the largest wild sockeye salmon runs in the world.  Large scale metallic sulfide mines for copper and gold, such as the proposed Pebble Mine, pose significant environmental threats to these exceptionally valuable fishery resources.

Alaska’s Department of Fish & Game’s Board of Fisheries sets policy and direction for the management of the state’s fishery resources mandate. The Board can  adopt regulations to set apart fish refuges in the waters of the state, subject to the approval of the legislature.

There were about 80 registered testimonials regarding the refuge proposal. Native representatives discussed the value of their subsistence lifestyle upon which they have depended for generations. Commercial and sport fishermen spoke of the value of their industries to Alaskans and to the world at large. Our partners at the Alaskan chapter of Trout Unlimited hosted a number of scientists that discussed the risks of acid mine drainage to fish habitat, and the follies of relying on mitigation to restore diminished salmon habitat. In my testimony, I discussed the importance of protecting one of our last remaining salmon strongholds, as well as the work I conducted this summer documenting and assessing salmon and their habitat.

Although the Board did not approve the proposal outright, they agreed to send a letter to the Alaska Legislature recommending review of the permitting process for large mines in Alaska, and to provide additional protection to Bristol Bay based on the outcome of that review.

Wild Salmon Center and Trout Unlimited collaborated on a technical report that examines the threats posed by a mining operation of Pebble Mine’s magnitude on the health and productivity of Bristol Bay and neighboring watersheds.

Bristol Bay watershed
The Pebble Mine proposed site is at the headwaters of Bristol Bay, home to the largest sockeye salmon runs in the world | © Ben Knight


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