Rainbow trout may be Washington’s official state fish, but it is salmon that occupy the starring role in our aquatic heritage. While decades of misuse and the legacy of dams have contributed to the precipitous decline of many of our local salmon runs, Seattle remains home to a massive fishing fleet that makes an annual pilgrimage to one of the last great areas for wild sockeye salmon: Bristol Bay, Alaska.
The Bristol Bay sockeye fishery is valued at over $500 million annually, supports over 12,000 direct jobs, and provides high-demand wild salmon for consumers around the world — not to mention sustenance for Alaskan Natives who have been fishing the bay for thousands of years. Bristol Bay is also home to one of the greatest animal migrations on the planet, making the area a rich part of our collective natural heritage.
Seattle’s connection to Bristol Bay extends back to before Alaska was even a state, when Washington-based canneries were among the first to commercially harvest salmon in western Alaska in the late 1800s. Prompted by the canneries’ concerns that the salmon runs were in decline, scientists from the University of Washington established a research institute there in the late 1940s — which is still in operation — to study the habitat requirements of the massive salmon populations and to help develop strategies to harvest and manage the fish without compromising their long-term sustainability.
Yet there is something hidden beneath these tremendous salmon streams that remained undiscovered until recently: a major deposit of copper and gold, which foreign mining companies are now proposing they dig out of the ground. The proposed Pebble Mine would be the largest in North America and generate up to ten billion tons of toxic mine waste, which would be disposed of behind massive earthen dams.
Out of concern for what the mine could mean for salmon, the Alaska Native community and the vast majority of Bristol Bay residents called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to conduct an assessment of the impacts large-scale mining might have on the region’s natural resources. The EPA has made commendable efforts to pull together the risk assessment, published on May 18, which will ensure that the best available science will inform decision-making around the Pebble Mine and Bristol Bay.
The bottom line from the EPA’s report is that large-scale mining poses a significant threat to the long-term health of the watersheds that support this fishery. Bristol Bay and its headwaters were carved by glaciers that receded 15,000 years ago, leaving an area that is porous to water flow across the landscape. While paradise for salmon, this flowing groundwater will likely make containing mining contamination nearly impossible. Based on what we know about the hydrology of Bristol Bay and the process of this type of hard rock mining, it is not a question of if there will be impacts to water quality, but when — and how severe.
There is clear evidence that mining activities and the infrastructure development needed to support these activities pose significant long-term risks to productive salmon ecosystems. Some of these impacts are obvious — toxic mine tailings will percolate into and pollute groundwater. In other areas the impacts are tougher to pin down, such as the building of roads, installing of power lines and other development associated with such a massive project. The sprawling infrastructure associated with such a mine could seriously erode the diversity and productivity of the vast network of habitat that salmon rely upon in Bristol Bay.
The Bristol Bay fishery is a crucial economic engine regionally and nationally. If we continue to manage it prudently, the jobs and cultural ways of life supported by the fishery are likely to be maintained in perpetuity. A mine, in contrast, provides a finite resource: eventually the gold and copper will be gone, and at what cost to one of the breadbaskets of the world?
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