Lake Aleknagik, Bristol Bay, ALASKA

Defend Bristol Bay Campaign Digs in for Next Round of Pebble Fight

Wild Salmon Center has been working for a decade to protect Bristol Bay from the Pebble Mine. This toxic mine, proposed in the headwaters of the Kvichak and Nushagak rivers, poses an existential threat to the productivity of the world’s greatest salmon stronghold.

Lately, WSC and Alaskan partners have been fighting an uphill battle against both a mining company and a federal permitting agency that clearly have little regard for the wishes of Bristol Bay communities or this majestic salmon fishery.

Two years ago, the Canadian company behind Pebble proposed a “small” mine plan to prove environmental responsibility and pass permitting muster. In reality, this is the first phase of a larger and more destructive mine—a plan made clear in Pebble executives’ recent private shareholder and industry discussions. The “small” mine won’t make money, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began a fast-tracked, politically driven permitting process for the mine anyway. WSC and our allies, as well as independent and agency scientists, have continually called on the Army Corps to address the well-documented problems with the Pebble project. They have not.

Finally, with Covid-19 threatening isolated and ill-equipped Bristol Bay communities this spring, local leaders asked the Corps to pause the final stage of permitting. The Army Corps responded by moving up its timeline.

Nonetheless, the Defend Bristol Bay campaign, which WSC is co-leading with tribal and conservation groups, is committed to this fight. Together, we have built a formidable legal and scientific expert team to challenge the Army Corps’ potential Pebble Mine permit approval in court. We’re rallying powerful allies in Congress for stricter Army Corps oversight, including Oregon Representative Peter DeFazio, chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. And in Alaska, we continue to strengthen Pebble opposition, aided by media reports about Pebble secretly courting favors from Alaska’s governor.

The goal is to defend Bristol Bay until the politics in Washington and Juneau change. Then, we can restart a science-based conversation about Bristol Bay, the perils of toxic mining in its headwaters, and the region’s need for permanent protections. Until then, we’re not backing down.

Below: Opposition to Pebble Mine continues to hold strong, including at Alaska’s annual Salmonfest gathering in Ninilchik (Tim Steinberg). Bottom: Bristol Bay rainbow and sockeye (Jason Ching). Top: Lake Aleknagik (Jason Ching).

Salmonfest photo by Tim Steinberg

The Gold Standard for Diversity

Bristol Bay is more reliable than any salmon fishery in the world in putting fish in boat holds and smokehouses while delivering nutrients back into ecosystems to support myriad species. Over the last six decades, the average return is over 30 million fish.

The secret of this success is in the diversity of Bristol Bay’s hundreds of distinct salmon runs. Thick-bodied lake salmon and thinner creek spawners. Juveniles that rear for a year in aquamarine lakes, and some that take a full second year before heading downstream for the ocean. All the characteristics of fish and habitat form a matrix. Picture it a thousand by a thousand, with each square representing one run of fish. In any given life cycle full of perils like salmon sharks, predatory birds, and low zooplankton food levels, some of the fish runs will hit the survival jackpot and return to Bristol Bay. Some will not.

But with nearly all the survival options covered, there are almost always enough winners to sustain high levels of overall abundance. In fact, scientist Daniel Schindler found that without this rich habitat diversity and locally adapted salmon populations, Bristol Bay would see low enough returns to warrant fisheries closures every two or three years. The region hasn’t seen a major closure since 2002.

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