Bristol Bay salmon - Sailors for the Sea

Bristol Bay salmon

By: Sarah Schumann, Rhode Island fisherman and Bristol Bay salmon cannery worker | February 10, 2014

Protect this treasure before it’s too late

In much of the contiguous United States, thriving wild salmon fisheries are a thing of yesteryear. Driven to depletion by river dams, water diversion, and other forms of habitat degradation, many salmon runs that once fed families, provided recreation, and supported commercial fishing economies are no longer able to do so.

Bristol Bay, Alaska is different.

Bristol Bay’s teeming salmon runs have delivered food for local residents for millennia and sustained a vibrant commercial fishery for over a century. Despite ongoing usage, Bristol Bay salmon today is going as strong as ever. What sets Bristol Bay apart, and sustains this continuing abundance, is something that is increasingly scarce in today’s world: pristine, intact fish habitat.

In the last several years, however, Bristol Bay salmon has come under threat from an unexpected source: a proposal to develop North America’s largest open-pit mine at the headwaters of two of its rivers. The proposed Pebble Mine would have a footprint of 28 square miles. It would extract an estimated $300-500 billion dollars of copper, gold, and molybdenum. It could generate 1,000 jobs for the next 25 years.

But all this would come at a high cost to the ecosystem and the fishery. The mine would eliminate up to 94 miles of salmon spawning stream and 5,350 acres of wetlands. And it would generate 3,000 pounds of waste for every man, woman, and child alive today – waste that would have to be stored onsite in massive earthen dams, in a wet and seismically active zone, and managed in perpetuity to guard against spills.

Fishermen and residents of Bristol Bay are faced with a choice between a healthy, sustainable, renewable food source or short-term, non-renewable mineral extraction. They know there is no such thing as consequence-free mining development at the scale proposed for Pebble. They also know that efforts to restore degraded salmon fisheries, once they have been altered, tend to be slow and often ineffectual.

In Alaska’s Bristol Bay, home to the healthiest sockeye salmon run in the world, we have a chance to learn from history and protect this watershed before it’s too late.

Why this ecosystem matters to all of us

Bristol Bay, in remote southwest Alaska, is a place most people never have a chance to see, hear, or touch. But everyone has the opportunity to taste it: just go to the seafood section or canned food aisle of your local supermarket and pick up a fillet or can of wild sockeye salmon. Chances are that it comes from Bristol Bay: this wondrously productive water body produces no less than 46% of the sockeye, or red, salmon in the world.

Diners are only some of the many recipients of the products of this uniquely fruitful water body. The 37 million or so salmon that return each summer to Bristol Bay’s five river systems fuel an entire ecosystem, feeding everything from streambed invertebrates to bears to eagles to the lush purple fireweed that blankets the tundra during the month of August.

The salmon also sustain 14,000 jobs, ranging from net makers to boat mechanics to fillet line workers — and of course, fishermen. Bristol Bay fishermen are of two types: setnetters, who use ~20’ skiffs to lay out hanging walls of net anchored to shore at one end; and driftnetters, who use 32’ boats to put out nets attached to their boats at one end. Both methods operate on the same principle: intercepting salmon as they make their way upriver to spawn and then die. Careful management assures that enough fish are able to get by the nets to ensure abundant future generations, year after year.

Until 1951, salmon boats were not allowed to use motors. Instead, they relied on a unique form of sailing boat: the Bristol Bay double-ender. The shores of Bristol Bay today are littered with the tattered skeletons of those sailing boats. Though that particular technology has been lost with the winds of time, the way of life that went along with it lives on today.

The fishermen, cannery workers, and others who share the joy of catching and processing Bristol Bay salmon every summer come to work in Alaska from around the nation. Just as the salmon they produce makes its way to supermarkets in every one of the fifty states, so too the income garnered by fishermen and workers makes its way to families far and wide.

Why EPA should put Bristol Bay’s watershed off-limits to mining

Three years ago, nine Alaska Native tribes, a handful of seafood processing companies, and many commercial fishermen and sportsmen’s groups jointly petitioned the EPA to exercise its authority under the Clean Water Act. Specifically, a provision that allows the EPA to deny a dredge-and-fill permit to any project that will “have an unacceptable adverse effect on municipal water supplies, shellfish beds and fishery areas (including spawning and breeding areas), wildlife or recreational areas.”

Last month, the EPA finalized its Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, the scientific document that will underpin its decision on whether to protect Bristol Bay from mining. That document is the result of two years worth of scrupulous research, two rounds of public comment, and an extensive peer review process. And it says what many Bristol Bay fishermen and residents have been saying all along: even without a major mine disaster, development of the Pebble Mine will have an adverse impact on Bristol Bay salmon and its salmon fishery.

Bristol Bay’s habitat, while remote for many of us, is something all of us should care about. And we all have an opportunity to help protect it!

You can make a difference. Follow these steps to create a positive future for the ocean.

Take Action

  • Join this leading community of Green Boaters to save our oceans. 
  • Follow us and spread the message on Facebook and Instagram.
  • Donate to Sailors for the Sea to help educate and activate the sailing and boating community toward improving ocean health.