Have you ever heard of Bristol Bay, Alaska, or that it is home to the largest biomass of returning sockeye salmon? Not to the mention the continously strong chum, silver, king and pink salmon runs.
Bristol Bay salmon annually return to the Kvichack and Nushagak watersheds to spawn, making up 40 percent of the global sockeye population. This wild salmon return is now one of the last remaining fisheries of this scale still intact. Bristol Bay’s fragile environment has always, to some level, been in jeopardy; with proper management, the fishery remains thriving, but plans to extract resources from the area put this environmental marvel at risk.
The largest open-pit underground mine ever created has been proposed at the headwaters of the Kvichack and Nushgak rivers. A large scale mining company, Northern Dynasty Minerals, is attempting to harvest copper, gold and molybdenum from this highly controversial site. With an estimated value of more than $300 billion, Northern Dynasty’s chief operating officer, Bruce Jenkins, said to “not be swayed by those who lead you to think this mine will be an ecological disaster,” arguing that the potential damage to this salmon habitat and bio-network as a whole is worthwhile.
I’m aiming to inform people outside the Bristol Bay community, allowing them to appreciate the importance of this ecosystem, and understand why such a project cannot be justified. Whether or not the mine shall be permitted has become very controversial, and has been argued about by the local people for years. I have grown up around this fishery, and as a Bristol Bay permit holder, and Western Washington University student, I have begun shaping my life in a way that allows me to be an active participant in what Bristol Bay has to offer. Thousands of additional people would also be directly affected if such a mine were to be implemented, being that “commercial fishing-related jobs account for nearly 75 percent of local employment” in Bristol Bay.
The Bristol Bay fisheries not only make up nearly the entire region’s job market, but have indirect effects on millions of people all over the world. “The Bristol Bay basin is one of the top producing wild Pacific salmon systems in the world, yielding up to 40 million mature salmon each year,” according to a report by the Wild Salmon Center. These salmon are then distributed all over the world. With a mine of this scale, the potential damage to the fishery would destroy jobs in many associated areas — including the numerous companies who build and repair the fishing vessels, the thousands of processing plant employees, the multinational seafood companies, and finally, the millions of consumers that purchase these particularly healthy and all natural wild salmon.
Although Northern Dynasty has promised to complete the project in a clean manner, a hard rock mining site of this magnitude has never been permitted. Plus, no open-pit, underground mine has ever been achieved without some degree of environmental damage. “With an industrial footprint twice the size of Seattle,” the ore to be extracted is “likely to produce acid mine drainage, which may lead to chronic contamination of surface and ground waters, having a severe detrimental impact on aquatic life,” the Wild Salmon Center’s report states. In an area where slight ecological damage could drastically hinder the delicate environment, and the lives of many relying on the fishery to survive, it is not justifiable.
Scores of people outside this group of Bristol Bay employees may not be aware of what is happening at the headwaters of the Kvichack and Nushagak rivers. By spreading knowledge on this issue, I hope that even those indirectly affected by this event, often consumers, will now be more aware of this potential calamity and will rightfully take their place in understanding this watershed’s vulnerability, to ensure this issue receives the proper care and attention it deserves.
Kyle Barber lives in Snohomish.