The proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, Alaska, would be an ecological, economic, and cultural tragedy. If developed, this open-pit copper and gold mine would be among the largest mines in North America, destroying thousands of acres of wetlands and headwater streams that currently support Bristol Bay’s legendary wild salmon runs.
It would store more than a billion tons of toxic mine waste in one of the most seismically active zones on Earth. Its development would open the floodgates to dozens of other mines looking to piggyback on its infrastructure, unleashing an ecological domino effect of disastrous proportions.
A current Army Corps of Engineers public comment period running until June 29 is the last chance that most Americans have to help block this disastrous mine.
Bristol Bay, Alaska, is a place most New Englanders have never heard of. Until June 2008, I was one of them. That year, as a penniless graduate student looking to earn my next year’s tuition, I used the Internet to secure a summer job at a salmon cannery — one of many lining the shores of the bay. After making my way from Providence to Dillingham, Alaska, I stumbled out of a cramped airplane and into the embrace of one of the greatest miracles on earth: Bristol Bay’s annual salmon run.
As I acclimated to the understated beauty of the vistas around me — sparse tundra peppered with verdant willows, muddy waters the color of heavily creamed coffee, and the retro-industrial interior of the cannery I worked in for 20 hours every day — my temporary fix for a financial shortfall turned into lifelong love affair with this one-of-a-kind place.
Like the salmon, who return from distant ocean waters every year to lay their eggs in the region’s meandering streams, I too have returned each summer. In the 11 summers since my first visit, Bristol Bay has given me friendship, prosperity, confidence, and the love and partnership of a fellow New Englander whose fate also became intertwined, at a young age, with the rhythms of Bristol Bay salmon.
Moving from a cannery assistant to a machinist to a deckhand on a salmon boat run by a Dillingham fisherman and his daughter, I have been lucky to experience as many cherished aspects of this fisheries paradise as an outsider can.
I share my experience to demonstrate how far the benefits of Bristol Bay salmon reach. My story is far from unique. Bristol Bay salmon support the equivalent of 14,000 full-time jobs that are filled by residents of many states, driving an economy worth $1.5 billion. For local villages, whose inhabitants are mostly members of the Yup’ik, Dena’ina, and Alutiq indigenous communities, age-old subsistence traditions based on salmon are part of the nutritional and cultural lifeblood of the area.
However, one need not be located in Bristol Bay to benefit from it. If you buy a piece of wild sockeye salmon from your Rhode Island or Massachusetts seafood counter or order it off a menu, there’s a 50 percent chance it was harvested in Bristol Bay.
That’s why all Americans must join with Alaskans to block development of the Pebble Mine. Bristol Bay residents have been fending off this mining proposal for more than 15 years, and this isn’t the first time they have asked fellow Americans to weigh in on federal decision-making. However, because of recent federal actions, much of those previous gains have been undone, and the mine is currently on a fast track for approval. The current Army Corps public comment period is the last chance for Americans outside of Alaska to have a say in the future of Bristol Bay.
To take action, please visit www.savebristolbay.org.
Sarah Schumann is a commercial fisherman in Rhode Island and Alaska.