After Alaska's 'Burning Man for salmon', fishermen wary of mine proposal outcome

SEATTLE – As the commercial fishermen who ply salmon-rich, southwestern Alaska pack away their fishing gear for the winter, many are watching anxiously as a controversial mine proposal moves through the federal permitting process.

On Tuesday, Alaskans will vote on an initiative that, if passed, would set stricter regulations for proposed infrastructure projects that affect salmon habitats.

Advocates for the measure hope it will derail Pebble Mine, the world's biggest undeveloped gold and copper project, and which is slated for the region of Bristol Bay – the largest fishery for sockeye salmon globally.¬†It is our view that our science and technical information will demonstrate we can responsibly develop a mine at Pebble –¬†Mike Heatwole, partnership spokesperson

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is preparing an environmental review of Pebble Mine, with preliminary results due in January.

Many of the commercial fishermen who make their living during the summer in Alaska's Bristol Bay winter their boats 2,750 kilometres (1,709 miles) southeast at Puget Sound in Washington state in the northwestern U.S.

But, as residents of Washington state, they are not registered to vote in Alaska. That leaves them on the sidelines of the debate, even though their livelihoods depend upon the future of Bristol Bay.

"This is literally our last chance at preserving robust, healthy salmon runs in the world," said Brendan Flynn, who has fished Bristol Bay for 15 years and who opposes the mine.

Historic harvest

Bristol Bay, a sparsely populated area the size of West Virginia, and which is fed by tens of thousands of streams, provides half of the world's wild salmon.

Although this year other Alaskan fisheries suffered – with the overall commercial harvest some 30 percent below forecast, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) said – it proved record-setting for Bristol Bay: here the sockeye salmon run hit 62.3 million, the largest since record-keeping began in 1893.

Boats landed about 41 million fish, the ADFG said, which was the second-largest harvest recorded.

"The fishing this season in Bristol Bay was historic," fisherman Michael Jackson told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from his boat at the Fishermen's Fall Festival in Seattle.

Jackson, who lives in Bellingham, Washington, has fished Bristol Bay for 35 years.

"It's like Burning Man for salmon fishing. You'll have days, sometimes tides, of really good fishing – but we were having weeks of really good fishing."

Environmental group Trout Unlimited said research published in 2013 had shown the value of Bristol Bay's fishery was $1.5 billion after factoring in processing and other activities, and supported nearly 10,000 jobs.

Some scientists have attributed this year's lower overall salmon run in some Alaskan fisheries to recent unusually warm Pacific ocean temperatures.

"In this changing world, (Bristol Bay) is the last, best place for salmon (on Earth)," Flynn said by phone from his home on Lopez Island, Washington.

Peaceful coexistence ?

Pebble Mine has been proposed for more than a decade. It seemed dead during the Obama administration, but is moving forward under U.S. President Donald Trump, who champions increased domestic mining.

The Pebble Limited Partnership, which is led by Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd, in December submitted an application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a wetlands-fill permit – a key authorisation required under the Clean Water Act.

The partnership's CEO, Tom Collier, said in a statement at the time they were confident the mine would "secure development permits from federal, state and local regulatory agencies".

"(And) we are confident it will co-exist with the world-class fisheries of Bristol Bay," Collier said.

Fishermen who work around the clock during the frenzied summer salmon-fishing months disagree that roads and slurries for an open-pit mine will not affect the Bristol Bay watershed salmon-spawning habitat.

"Just the building of the infrastructure itself will irrevocably change the region that is currently an intact ecosystem and is therefore very resilient to climatic change," Flynn said.

The mine's backers believe fears of destroying the salmon run are overblown given the size of the watershed, which encompasses 40,000 square miles (103,600 square km) and eight river systems.

"There is a misperception out there that we are at the headwaters of the one and only river in all of Bristol Bay," Pebble partnership spokesman Mike Heatwole told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by email.

Bristol Bay fishermen point to the huge mining-waste spill at the Mount Polley copper-gold mine in Canada's British Columbia province in August 2014 as a dangerous precedent.

A tailings pond collapsed at that mine, sending billions of gallons of gray sludge containing metals and minerals into waterways in the province's interior.

"Everything that Mother Nature has worked so hard to create over the years would be destroyed in seconds, and those fish are not coming back," Jackson said of a possible spill at Pebble Mine.

The Pebble partnership said its design would ensure safety.

"We believe we have designed a responsible and safe storage facility for our tailings and have made some engineering improvements based upon what was learned from that accident," said spokesman Heatwole.

10,000 years

While the federal process churns on and Alaskan voters contemplate the Salmon Habitat Protections and Permits Initiative, Flynn lends support by donating to groups like Trout Unlimited and telling other fishermen about the cause.

In 2008, he canvassed in Alaska for a failed ballot initiative on mine discharge.

He believes his home in Washington is a harbinger of the path Alaska could take.

"I live in a place where we've messed up our habitat," he said.

Puget Sound trout, Chinook salmon and steelhead are all now classified as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Flynn began fishing in Bristol Bay because the once-annual sockeye salmon harvest in Puget Sound is now held only every four years.

"I'd like there to be fish (in Bristol Bay) in 10,000 years," he said.

"I don't know if that's a possibility. In 10,000 years, that toxic pit will still be there if they dig that hole."

(By Gregory Scruggs, Editing by Robert Carmichael. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories.)