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By NED McGREAVY, DENNIS McCARTHY, FRED MATTERA and SARAH SCHUMANN
Our country’s smallest state and largest state, in many ways a study in contrasts, have one important thing in common: a cultural and economic tradition deeply anchored to the ocean and its fisheries. That shared heritage is the reason that Rhode Island has a special role to play in supporting the protection of one of Alaska’s most exceptional fishery resources — the rich, irreplaceable wild salmon of Bristol Bay.
For the better part of a decade, a coalition of commercial fishermen, sports fishermen and Alaska Native tribes has been working hard to defeat a proposal to mine a massive copper, gold and molybdenum deposit in terrain just steps from the headwaters to two of the richest salmon streams in the Bristol Bay watershed. The proposed open-pit mine, called the Pebble Mine, would be among the world’s largest: a hole in the ground 2 miles wide and as deep as 2,000 feet, ringed by four waste containment dams measuring up to 700 feet high and several miles across.
The scenario facing the region is in many ways a cruel irony — an expansive metals deposit, with an estimated value of $300 billion to $500 billion, perched above a uniquely fertile ecosystem that produces 50 percent of the world’s sockeye salmon, supports a fishery economy worth $1.5 billion annually and provides jobs for 14,000 people a year in the catching and processing of salmon.
While it may be tempting to hope that the two industries could peacefully coexist, the salmon-dependent residents and businesses of Bristol Bay don’t believe in wishful thinking. They know that the Bristol Bay ecosystem and its vibrant fishery economy are too valuable to gamble with.
In a best-case scenario, Pebble Mine would cause slow degradation of Bristol Bay’s economic mainstay. Even a trickle of copper-laced wastewater finding its way to a salmon stream is capable of disrupting salmon’s sense of smell and making it impossible for the fish to locate their intergenerational spawning grounds. A worst-case scenario — a major accident or earthquake — could spell sudden death for this centuries-old, immaculately managed fishery. Given the track record of similar mines around the world, and the fact that the Pebble Mine deposit is in a seismically active area, such dire visions are more than just idle fretting.
Fearing for their cherished salmon fisheries, nine Native Alaskan tribes and commercial fishing associations petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2010 to protect the Bristol Bay watershed from harmful mining activities under section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act. Under this section, the EPA can prohibit the discharge of dredged or fill material (mining waste, in this case) into watersheds or wetlands in cases where it would lead to unacceptable adverse impacts on fisheries, wildlife, human water supplies or recreational areas. If the EPA uses its 404(c) authority in Bristol Bay, the Pebble Mine will not be able to move forward.
On Jan. 16, the EPA released an exhaustive study evaluating the possible risks to Bristol Bay salmon fisheries if a mine like Pebble is built. This document represents the culmination of three years of research, two public comment periods and a thorough peer review process. It will inform the EPA’s decision on whether to grant 404(c) protection to Bristol Bay’s lush watershed and productive salmon fishery. In the report, EPA scientists have affirmed the existence of numerous dangers anticipated to result from a potential mine in the area.
Given the risks associated with developing a mine in the Bristol Bay watershed, and the extraordinary economic and food value of Bristol Bay salmon, we hope that the EPA acts on the information provided by its scientists by exercising its 404(c) authority to permanently protect Bristol Bay’s unparalleled salmon fishery from mining.
This is not just an Alaska issue. The fishermen and processing workers who make Bristol Bay’s salmon economy hum each summer come not only from within the region and other parts of Alaska, but from states all over the country — even Rhode Island. Some return year after year, while others go for a one-time paycheck. Some are fishermen back home, while others are teachers, students, nurses or engineers.
What all these people all have in common is that something — perhaps a mortgage, a student loan, a dream of starting one’s own business or just a sense of adventure — propelled them to go to Bristol Bay, Alaska, and get involved with salmon. And for as long as people have been going to Bristol Bay, salmon has delivered what they are seeking. Returning each year like clockwork to the mouths of their natal streams, they fill fishermen’s nets, scuttle down busy processing lines, travel to supermarkets and restaurants nationwide, and grace dinner plates at homes far and wide — cranking out dollars at every step of the way.
A number of Rhode Islanders have a connection, direct or indirect, to Alaska fisheries, starting with the authors of this opinion piece:
Ned McGreavy lives in Warren. He has fished intermittently throughout his two-plus-decade career as an educator, both in Rhode Island (gillnetting and lobstering) and Alaska. He started out driftnet fishing for salmon in Bristol Bay while living in Homer, Alaska, and more recently has worked on a salmon setnet operation in Prince William Sound.
Dennis McCarthy is a clean-energy advocate living in Providence. During the summers of 1979 and ’80, while he was an undergraduate at URI, he worked on a salmon processing vessel based at Clark’s Point, on Bristol Bay’s Nushagak River.
Fred Mattera is a retired fisherman (owner of the freezer trawler F/V Travis and Natalie) and he now runs Marine Safety Training Co. in Point Judith. In the 1970s, he spent some time in southeast Alaska working on gillnet and longline boats.
Sarah Schumann is a Warren-based shellfisherman and writer for most of the year. She has spent the past six summers as a salmon cannery machinist in Dillingham, Alaska, processing Bristol Bay salmon — a job that represents the bulk of her annual income.
In addition to those four Rhode Islanders who spend, or have spent, parts of their lives catching or processing fish in Alaska, there are many more who identify with Alaska’s fisheries indirectly.
Dozens of participants in Rhode Island’s seafood economy — fishermen, shellfish growers, seafood dealers, bait suppliers, net makers, boat repair shops and chefs — have expressed solidarity with their peers in Alaska by asking Rhode Island’s federal delegation to support the EPA’s 404(c) process. Healthy fish habitat is of vital interest to fishermen everywhere, and it’s not hard for Rhode Island’s fishing fleet to imagine itself in Alaska’s waters.
In a move reaffirming his commitment to the health of our nation’s economy and environment, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., recently expressed his concern for the negative impacts that large-scale mining could have on the fishery resources of Bristol Bay.
Spurred by the entreaties of many members of Rhode Island’s fishing and seafood industry, Whitehouse said, “Although Bristol Bay, Alaska, is thousands of miles away from Rhode Island, the outcome of this assessment and any future EPA actions to protect the watershed will have a direct effect on Rhode Islanders. ... Like Alaska, Rhode Island has a long tradition of commercial fishing, and Rhode Islanders know that any threat to the Bristol Bay salmon fishery would be a threat to the entire fishing industry.”
The senator is spot-on in recognizing the direct and indirect connections between Rhode Island and Alaska fisheries. We applaud his insightfulness on this issue and hope that other elected officials will soon reach similar conclusions.
Bristol Bay’s salmon fishery is a forever self-replenishing store of natural wealth and economic opportunity — for the residents of Alaska and beyond. No amount of mineral wealth justifies putting a thriving ecosystem and established fishing economy at risk.
Residents of Rhode Island and other New England states can help by urging our elected officials to support the EPA’s diligent evaluation of a possible 404(c) action to protect Bristol Bay’s watershed from mining. The simplest way to make your voice heard is to sign this petition. You can learn more about the authors of this opinion piece by watching this video.