Strengthening America’s Fisheries Should Start in Bristol Bay, Alaska

Last month, President Donald Trump issued a new executive order to promote and strengthen America’s fisheries, while the Department of Commerce announced a $300 million in fisheries assistance. The executive order said, “America needs a vibrant and competitive seafood industry to create and sustain American jobs, put safe and healthy food on American tables, and contribute to the American economy.”

For Alaskans, and particularly those who live in southwest Alaska’s Bristol Bay region, the executive order and investment are affirmation that our fishing culture and fishing economy will not be ignored during a global pandemic. Unfortunately, across the Potomac, the Army Corps of Engineers is doing everything it can to permit a proposed mine that would be devastating to Bristol Bay’s unparalleled fishery. Bristol Bay supplies half of the world’s harvest of wild sockeye salmon, supports a $1.5 billion-dollar economy, creates 14,000 jobs that extend from Alaska to nearly every state in the Union, and boasts a tourism industry that provides anglers and wildlife enthusiasts with bucket list trips of a lifetime. 

After over a decade of intense debate in Alaska and the Lower 48, the Pebble mine is entering its last stages of the corps’ regulatory review for the required Clean Water Act 404 permit. This massive gold and copper mine would sit at the headwaters of the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery, where spills could prove devastating to the cultural and economic lifeblood of the community. 

Despite multiple federal and state agencies raising red flags about the proposed mine’s design and likely unacceptable, adverse impacts to Bristol Bay’s water and fishery resources, the corps is still moving at an unnecessarily aggressive pace to permit one of the most controversial mines in the country.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the latest draft of the mine’s environmental impact statement “fails to acknowledge that habitat destruction and degradation associated with mine development […] would erode the portfolio of habitat diversity and associated life history diversity that stabilize annual salmon returns to the Bristol Bay region.”

The Alaska Department of Natural Resources believes “it is not clear that the preliminary final environmental impact statement has considered risks, impacts, or mitigation of changes in operations or failures in the closure and post-closure periods and the respective obligations of the applicant.” 

A second state agency, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, determined that the report offers “no support for conclusion that metals would be diluted to below ADEC groundwater cleanup levels.”

And the third-party engineering firm conducting the environmental review noted that the design of the tailings waste dam – one of the linchpins to the argument that proposed Pebble mine and Bristol Bay’s fishery can coexist – is “incomplete and misleading.”

The result is a proposal that, at best, leaves many key questions unanswered, and at worst ignores the serious degradation to the fishery that experts believe is likely. Such a deficient document is unacceptable to the people of Bristol Bay and should be unacceptable to all Americans.

Last year, speaking about the permitting process for Pebble, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) stated, “If a mine cannot stand on its own without negative impact to the fisheries resource, then that mine should not be permitted.” She later successfully included language in the 2020 Interior and Environment Appropriations bill that encouraged federal agencies, including the corps and the Environmental Protection Agency, to use their discretionary authorities to protect Bristol Bay if the corps fails to do an adequate job in assessing the potential impacts.

Around the same time, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said, “The burden of proof is now on Pebble and the corps to substantially address these concerns based on science as required by law.”

Eight months later and with a new version of the environmental assessment now available, the concerns of Alaska’s senators – typically strong supporters of mining and resource development – are still nowhere close to being resolved.

It would be easy for those in Washington, D.C., to turn a deaf ear to what may seem like a local issue in a community 4,000 miles away, especially during a global pandemic. However, if we allow gold to replace salmon in a place like Bristol Bay, no American fishery is safe and American food security would be even further eroded.

It is time for the administration to back up its strong rhetoric and financial support for American fisheries with action. It is time to reject the proposed Pebble mine and to protect Bristol Bay’s world-class commercial, sport and subsistence fisheries.

Jason Metrokin, a resident of Anchorage, Alaska, is president and CEO of Bristol Bay Native Corporation.

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