By John Hohl
Many Kenai Peninsula residents depend on the health of the Bristol Bay fishery, some as commercial fishermen or perhaps one of the many local lodges or flight services that regularly shuttle their clients across the inlet for a day of fishing. My brother and I, both Kenai Peninsula residents, operate a remote fly fishing business in the Bristol Bay drainages during the summer season. All the supplies, aircraft maintenance, etc are procured here on the Kenai Peninsula. In fact, we all depend on it indirectly, as the health of our state’s largest sockeye fishery is a direct reflection on all fisheries and effects the perception and reputation of our entire state.
It is also not a far stretch to compare what might happen in Bristol Bay to what has happened here recently with our king salmon. The impact felt to our economy, especially by many of our guides and commercial fishers, was just a small taste of what would happen in Bristol Bay if even modest contamination of groundwater were to occur. That’s why numerous Alaskan’s, including Bristol Bay tribes, commercial and sport fishing organizations, as well as a wide range of individuals and businesses throughout the state, asked the EPA to initiate an assessment of the possible effect of large scale mining within the Bristol Bay watershed. Now, after several years, the EPA has released its final assessment. It is a document which takes into account a wide range of previously conducted studies, draws upon hundreds of peer-reviewed, published reports and scientific findings, and uses the best available science regarding large-scale mining in salmon waters. In addition, it draws directly upon documents prepared for, and released, by Northern Dynasty Minerals, the company seeking to develop the Pebble deposit – one of dozens of mining claims in the watershed. During two extensive rounds of peer review, national experts weighed in on the scope, structure, and content of the assessment, far exceeding the requirements of the traditional peer review process. And the facts of the report are irrefutable: Pebble and other large-scale mining in Bristol Bay would cause irreversible harm to Bristol Bay’s salmon and jobs, even if nothing ever goes wrong.
The Pebble Mine, if developed would be almost twenty times larger than all the other hard-rock mines in Alaska combined, and would sit at the headwaters of the world’s most prolific sockeye fishery. The Assessment shows that more than 90 miles of prime salmon spawning and rearing habitat would no longer exist, with large tracts of wetlands drained, or dug up, and as much as 10 billion tons of waste would have to be stored behind tailings dams only a few miles from Lake Iliamna. Kenai Peninsula and Cook Inlet residents may also want to consider the possible ramifications of the planned slurry line, deep water mining port, and transfer station on the west side of the inlet and the direct risks that poses to Kenai-area fisheries.
As most Alaskan’s know, Bristol Bay’s salmon runs are unique in size and status, even by our standards, supporting over 14,000 fishing jobs, a thriving lodge and tourism industry and adding $1.5 billion dollars annually to the economy. It supports my business as well as many others in Bristol Bay, Kenai, Homer, and beyond. Salmon are the real gold keeping many Alaska businesses open. Our salmon resource, if we take care of it, will keep giving year after year, for our children and even their children and grandchildren.
Fortunately, Alaskans have the opportunity to protect Bristol Bay, its fisheries, and our reputation, by using section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act. Numerous Alaskans have asked the EPA to use the Clean Water Act to protect the rivers and wetlands of Bristol Bay by prohibiting mine waste from being disposed of in specific waters that are essential to salmon, wildlife and recreation.
In most cases it would certainly be preferable to handle these matters in-state and without the “interference” of the federal government. Asking them to intervene in this case, however, is warranted, because the state permitting system simply does not work. It has been seen time and again, permits for other operations have been returned, but only for adjustments, and in the end the project is always permitted. In the case of Pebble, or any other mine in the region, the system is designed to approve the project, there is no no-mine option. There are also numerous bills being considered in the legislature this session, such as HB 77, that would lessen protections on fisheries and silence Alaskans. The permitting system as it currently stands is broken, with no sign of it being repaired anytime in the near future. With this in mind, Alaskans who care about our fisheries and their future have been forced to ask for help via the Clean Water Act, and hopefully the EPA will take the next step in invoking protections for the amazing fisheries resources of Western Alaska.
Today we can honestly tout the Bristol Bay fishery as the greatest on Earth, truly an Alaskan and American treasure that, if taken care of, will not only continue to feed the imaginations and souls of countless visitors, but will continue to bolster Alaska’s reputation and our economy for generations to come.
John Hohl co-owner of Alaska Fly Anglers, Inc. in Soldotna.
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