Everything Old Is New Again: Bristol Bay and the Pebble Mine
Back in 2006, Patagonia hosted a social event in its downtown Denver retail store in conjunction with the Fly Fishing Retailer trade show. At the event, a colleague and I addressed the attendees about an emerging threat to the world’s most productive wild salmon fishery in Bristol Bay. Later that evening, I met a young filmmaker who expressed an interest in filming the story of the proposed Pebble Mine. Patagonia was an important early supporter of Red Gold (an award-winning documentary that you should watch, whether or not you’ve seen it before). The film tells the story of the different user groups that benefit from the Bristol Bay fishery—Alaska natives, commercial fishermen and sport anglers—and upon its release in 2008, served to engage audiences across the country in a long-running campaign to see Bristol Bay protected. There’s a good chance you yourself took some type of action to tell some public official that this place is special.
Over a million Americans participated in a public process over the course of several years that saw the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency propose some common-sense restrictions on the disposal of mine waste in two of Bristol Bay’s major river drainages in 2014. It was the only outcome that could be reached right? After all, in what sort of bizarro world does building the biggest open-pit copper and gold mine in North America right in the headwaters of the world’s biggest wild salmon fishery pass for a sound decision? But before the restrictions could be finalized, the small Canadian mining company behind Pebble filed a slew of lawsuits against the EPA to try to keep their project on life support. All but one suit was dismissed, but one lingered and prevented the EPA from finishing the job of seeing Bristol Bay protected.
Between the summer of 2014 and this year, Bristol Bay has had some of the most historic salmon fishing seasons in its 130-plus year history. This season, in the Nushagak District alone—the Nushagak River is one of the drainages that would be impacted by the Pebble Mine—the fishery had two single days when over one million sockeye salmon were harvested. Processing plants were maxed out in capacity. With high prices paid for their catch, the small businesses making up the commercial fleet had very profitable seasons. With the 2017 runs in the books, the numbers are staggering: 56.5 million fish returned, with 18.8 million making their way up the rivers and streams in which they were born, to produce the next generation of wild Bristol Bay sockeye. Talk about a renewable resource!
In the four seasons since the EPA’s efforts to protect this amazingly productive fishery were placed in legal limbo, 208 million sockeye returned to Bristol Bay’s rivers. The fishery supports over 14,000 jobs and is responsible for $1.5 billion in economic activity every year. Those figures include the contributions of tens of thousands of sport anglers who travel from across the globe to chase not just all five species of Pacific salmon, but gargantuan rainbow trout that are found in few other places on Earth.
With all that good news about huge salmon returns, why are we taking this trip down memory lane, you ask? Well, in another stark example of elections having consequences, the new Administration’s leadership at the EPA quickly showed its stripes by reaching a backroom deal to settle the lawsuit with the backers of the Pebble Mine, and is attempting to roll back the restrictions proposed back in 2014. I’m sorry, but putting the interests of a junior Canadian mining company whose stock was under $0.50 a share before last November’s election above all that Bristol Bay represents, that doesn’t sound like such an America First decision to me. And, you can bet how well it sat with people in Bristol Bay.
Pebble is still trying to find major mining companies to buy into the project to replace Mitsubishi, Anglo American and Rio Tinto—all of whom washed their hands of their stakes in Pebble over the past decade, at losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars collectively. Pebble is trying to sell the public a watered-down version of “Pebble Lite,” promising a smaller, cuddlier version of what will undoubtedly need to be massive to turn a profit. All the while, speaking out of both sides of their mouths, they continue to tout the enormity of their project to the investment community. And, while Pebble may be the most well-known proposal in the region, over 500,000 acres (nearly 800 square miles) of mining claims stand by just waiting for the door to be cracked open so Bristol Bay can become a mining district. Pebble is the foot in the door. If it advances, the dominoes will fall with devastating consequences.
So it’s time once again to rally for Bristol Bay, for wild salmon, for American small businesses, for families whose connection to these lands and waters go back millennia, for the dream of a 30-inch rainbow trout on the end of your line. In Bristol Bay, all of these diverse groups have found a cause to work together, and there is strength in that unity. A line has been drawn in the tundra north of Lake Iliamna, and we will defeat the Pebble Mine.
Save Bristol Bay, Stop the Pebble Mine
Take a moment and register your comments with the EPA before the October 17th deadline. Then tell your friends, family, coworkers and anyone who cares about wild fish and wild places to do the same.
Update (January 2018 via tu.org): Over the course of the public comment period and several hearings in Alaska, the EPA received more than one million comments, including 26,000 from Alaskans, opposing the withdrawal of the 2014 mining restrictions that protect the waters of Bristol Bay. On January 26, 2018, in a surprise move, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt released a statement announcing that he was not withdrawing restrictions on mining, and Alaska Governor Bill Walker welcomed this news in a strong statement of support for Bristol Bay’s fisheries. Thank you to everyone who spoke up! Unfortunately, the Pebble Mine will continue to remain a very real threat. Just a few weeks ago, Pebble Limited Partnership applied for the first of the many dozen permits they need, and this kicked off a multi-year review process. Mine opponents must continue to demonstrate at every level that for scientific, economic and cultural reasons Pebble should not be granted a permit. Please visit savebristolbay.org to get involved.