Are Alaskan Sockeye Salmon Doomed?

EPA: Development of Pebble Mine project could be devastating for the 37 million fish in Bristol Bay.
Bristol Bay is the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery, but the EPA says it's at risk if development of the Pebble Mine project moves forward. (Photo: Natalie Fobes/Getty Images)
May 21, 2012· 2 MIN READ
Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

The 37 million or so sockeye salmon that spawn in Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed are back in the news this week, after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a draft scientific study Friday that concluded development of a large-scale mine could be devastating for the world’s largest wild sockeye salmon fishery.

That conclusion is followed immediately by a clarifier that the EPA study is being released for public comment and that it “in no way prejudges future consideration of proposed mining activities.”

With that disclaimer out of the way, everyone who reads the study knows we’re talking about the controversial Pebble Mine Project, which has been a political hot potato from the get-go.

The EPA’s first significant federal (draft) study of the project details some potential impacts that will keep plenty of environmentalists up at night:

• Significant impact on fish populations, including loss of spawning and rearing habitat for several salmon species, other fish, birds and mammals, like bears, that rely on a sound ecosystem;

• Blocked streams and reduced water flow that could result in the direct loss of up to 87 miles of streams and wetlands, and would directly impact salmon passage;

• Heavy water usage by the mine that would even further diminish streams and habitat.

And that’s before there’s a mining accident.

Throw a mishap into the mix, and we’re talking about the release of acid, metal and other mining contaminants into the water, and even the EPA writes that “over the lifespan of a large mine, at least one or more accidents or failures could occur, potentially resulting in immediate, severe impacts on salmon and detrimental, long-term impacts on salmon habitat and production.”

Even with a preliminary draft report, the science would suggest it’s a mighty big risk to build a mine in the heart of this sensitive landscape. So why the push to do so? Simple. There is a significant amount of gold, copper and molybdenum there, and mining companies, including American PLC and Northern Dynasty Minerals, Ltd., promise much-needed jobs and access to valuable minerals we use in everything from construction to cars. (Forget about jewelry; most of the major jewelers have already pledged not to source their gold from the project.) Developers of the mine have already budgeted $107 million to push the application permit through.

Even without the mine, opponents argue the fishery itself is an economic driver, creating $480 million in revenue and providing 14,000 jobs.

It’s no surprise the new EPA report immediately touched off a political firestorm, says the Los Angeles Times, “with Alaska’s Republican administration warning that the agency has no authority to conduct the assessment,” and prompting a letter from Congressmen Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson requesting “the agency to reveal the names of all employees who had communications with Bristol Bay residents, fishermen and tribesmen who petitioned for the agency’s watershed review; the names of individuals who organized Jackson’s site visit to Bristol Bay; and all internal documents and communications related to the agency’s determination of whether it has jurisdiction over permitting for the mine.”

The EPA’s stance is that it does indeed have the authority under the Clean Water Act, and can ultimately veto the project.

Elizabeth Dubovsky, Alaska program salmon outreach director with Trout Unlimited, tells TakePart that the EPA draft report was significant.

“Everyone has done their reports—the Pebble Mine Partnership, the Wild Salmon Center in partnership with us. But this is the federal government using science to show that large-scale mining will have negative impacts on the productivity and sustainability of the Bristol Bay,” she tells TakePart.

“Now is the time to take action. Now that we have the science, we have as good a sense as we’ll ever have on what the impacts will be, and that points to the risks being too great. It’s not worth destroying something as valuable and as exceptional as Bristol Bay to make a profit.”

Is gold and copper worth decimating the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery?