Here in Alaska, salmon season is in full swing. Fishermen are working hard and celebrating a good catch that has already topped 100 million salmon. I have been fishing here for nearly two decades, beginning alongside my father on a Bristol Bay gillnetter at 17 before getting my own boat. I’m proud to be part of an industry that feeds the world with healthy, sustainably harvested wild fish.
In the winters I’ve worked with newly emerging alliances of commercial, sport, and traditional use fishermen to safeguard our fisheries from regulations or projects that threaten to degrade Alaska’s seafood bounty and our trusted brand of clean and sustainable seafood.
Fishing is never a sure thing, and when not at the whim of mother nature, fishermen have other threats to worry about. Fishermen’s worst fears were realized in British Columbia (B.C.) on August 4. That was the day an earthen dam holding back wastewater at the Mount Polley Mine breached, sending 2000 olympic-size swimming pools (5 million cubic meters) of toxic sludge into downstream rivers and lakes. (See video footage of the destruction below).
This disaster warns of an ominous future for salmon in Alaska if we don’t take action now to protect the habitats they depend on. The timing couldn’t be worse with 1.5 million salmon from Canada’s Fraser River returning to spawn in fouled Quesnel Lake.
Only time will tell the magnitude of damage this disaster will have on one of the world’s great salmon runs. My heart goes out to the families who depend on those fish for their livelihoods and way of life.
There are a lot more mines in the works. Recently approved by the B.C. government, the proposed Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell (KSM) mine is just one of five major ventures in the area. Fishermen, tribes and conservationists fear these mines will poison salmon-bearing rivers that begin in B.C. and flow into Southeast Alaska.
Similarly, the proposed Pebble Mine would be built on rivers that flow into Alaska’s Bristol Bay and would threaten the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery. Important decisions are coming up for both proposed mines.
British Columbia Mines
While the province has given KSM the go ahead, the federal government of Canada must also approve it before it can move forward. Alaskans are voicing strong concerns about KSM and asking Canada’s government to review it much more thoroughly before rubber-stamping a project that might impact our livelihoods and way of life.
A delegation representing 40 businesses, tribes, and fishermen recently travelled to Washington, D.C. to ask Secretary of State John Kerry to intervene with the Canadian federal government on their behalf. In the wake of the Mount Polley disaster, U.S. Senators from Alaska, Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski, also sent letters to Kerry asking him to demand a thorough investigation.
The KSM mine would be one of the largest open pit mines in the world and leave behind an estimated 2 billion tons of waste over its lifetime. That waste could wind up in the Unuk and Nass Rivers. The Unuk flows through Misty Fiords National Monument and boasts the largest runs of King Salmon in Southeast Alaska. All five species of Pacific salmon come home to its waters. The Nass is British Columbia’s third largest salmon river, producing fish caught by both Canadians and Alaskans.
The proposed Pebble Mine would be the largest open pit copper and gold mine in North America, generating billions of tons of waste.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) recent watershed assessment indicated that over 4,800 acres of wetlands and 94 miles of salmon streams would be destroyed or degraded as part of the mine’s normal operations. There is one more EPA comment period on the draft rules for mine waste disposal that would all but end the possibility of mining in the Bristol Bay region.
Knight Piesold Consulting, the company that built the breached waste pond dam at Mount Polley Mine is the same company on contract to design the one for Pebble Mine. Pebble proponents have frequently testified that while breaches have happened in the past, they won’t happen in modern mines. Sadly, their dam was not as strong as their words.
The deadline for submitting comments to the EPA on the Bristol Bay Watershed mine waste disposal rules is September 19th.