The Big Issue: Losing America’s Last Great Wild Fishery


As we gear up for the summer fishing season, it’s easy to forget about the big issues. We’re focused on checking our gear. We’re watching water levels as record snows in the Rockies flood the rivers, promising hold-onto-your-hat salmon-fly and stone-fly seasons. We’re watching the promising early numbers in the Pacific Northwest as spring Chinook and steelhead swim pass the counters at Bonneville and Willamette Falls. Guides are loading up to fly north to Alaska, or just showing up in mountain valleys still filled with snow and fast rising rivers in Montana and Wyoming. We the fisherman are oiling reels, checking bank accounts and being kind to bosses as we plan trips to our favorite spots. Some of us are gearing up big for the trip of a lifetime. Others are still years away from that trip, stashing away money, pinning articles up above the fly-tying desk, and talking with friends over beers about how someday we will go someplace like Bristol Bay, Alaska.

But we need to make sure Bristol Bay is still Bristol Bay when we get there. The world’s largest sockeye salmon run and the best trophy rainbow fishing anywhere will be in peril if a massive mining project known as the Pebble Mine comes to pass. This is not just Alaska’s issue. It is not just a commercial fishing or sportfishing issue. This is about America’s last great wild fishery. If we falter here, we will have laid down our rods at the feet of a multi-national corporation. We will have turned an industry with a long history of destroying fisheries loose in a place that provides 40 percent of the wild salmon the world eats. As fishermen we will have abandoned one of the last places that is hatchery-free, with runs averaging 40 million salmon a year.

If you fish and have not heard of Pebble, you may have been under a rock. It is a proposal for the largest hard rock gold and copper mine in North America, bringing with it all the pollution risk and water consumption that comes with mining at this scale. It would sit at the headwaters of the largest salmon fishery in the world, a place where you can catch 5 types of salmon, rainbows, Dollies, char, northern pike, lake trout and grayling. Its sport fishing industry brings in $100 million a year; its commercial fisheries are worth $400 million each year. Together they provide jobs for more than 12,000 people.

All those jobs will be at risk. And Pebble Mine will cost taxpayers in Alaska and the rest of the United States for centuries as its toxic waste lingers. When the Pebble Partnership finishes mining in 50 years or so, they will lay off the 800 workers, displacing families, leaving a mess of roads, the world’s largest earthen dam, a ten square mile settling pond, and a hole three-quarters of a mile deep. We will be faced with a mine waste clean-up of massive proportions. For those of you familiar with copper and gold mines, whether in Utah, Michigan or Montana, you know what it has cost to clean up past mistakes and abandoned mines. Just the cost of monitoring the mining activities will cost the taxpayer a fortune.

So, you say, what can I do? Maybe you have already signed a petition or friended the Save Bristol Bay page on Facebook. You might have shown the film “Red Gold” at your house and have a “No Pebble” sticker on your boat. Those are a great start, but we are now beyond bumper stickers. We have a rare opportunity. We have a tool to stop this beast. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), under section 404c of the Clean Water Act, can veto a location for the disposal of dredged or fill material, even before a permit is submitted, if the waste run-off will have unacceptable adverse effects on water purity, fish, wildlife and recreational areas. That means the EPA could stop Pebble in its tracks. The agency is completing a watershed assessment on Pebble Mine that will be open for comment within a few months. We as fishermen need to let our members of congress, many who are attacking EPA as an overbearing job killer to industry, know that the EPA must take a hard stance on Pebble Mine. No matter your feelings about EPA, taking a hard look at a mine that could ruin thousands of long-term jobs and cost taxpayers for years to come is the right thing to do. Let the EPA know that.

We have 600 businesses, fishing and hunting clubs, conservation groups, chefs, commercial fishing groups, and tribes working together on this effort. The momentum is there, but we need all hands on deck. Throughout the summer we will be travelling all over the US, talking with restaurants, fly shops, commercial fishermen and local conservation groups about the importance of this issue. Take the time to read the emails or the Facebook postings, or if you see something on a local fishing forum. Then get off your duff and do something. Donate to the cause, whether you can afford to write a big check or need to dip into the beer money to send $20 bucks. Go to www.SaveBristolBay.org today and get involved.

Your member of congress, your U.S. Senators, the EPA and especially President Obama need to know it is time to say no to the Pebble Mine. The EPA is reviewing Pebble Mine as you read this. We sportsmen are middle of the road voters, we need to let President Obama know as election season draws near that taking a hard stance on the Pebble Mine is something we will notice. It is about jobs, it is about cutting spending, it is right for the long-term health of our nation and it is about knowing places like Bristol Bay will be there for that once-in-a-lifetime trip.

So as you gear up for summer, take a moment and consider that the world’s largest wild salmon run could be lost without your help. When you think about what your home river looked like 150 years ago, that is what the rivers of Bristol Bay look like, wild. When you work at your local river clean-up or stream project, remember we still have Bristol Bay, where the habitat is intact. Even if you can’t stand your member of congress or the President, remember this: They will do anything to get elected and you’re a voter, so make Pebble Mine an issue. We will be all over the country this year beating the drum to stop Pebble Mine, but it will take you stepping up. The time is now to stop Pebble Mine.

Dwayne Meadows Scott Hed

Bristol Bay National Outreach Director Director

Trout Unlimited Sportsman’s Alliance for Alaska