The Pebble deposit lies at the headwaters of Bristol Bay, the greatest salmon fishery in the world. (Courtesy Photo / Colin Arisman)

Pride of Bristol Bay: Permanent protections in view for Bristol Bay

By Bjorn Dihle

For more than two decades, those who care about Bristol Bay — the largest sockeye salmon run on the planet — have been fighting the proposed Pebble Mine, a massive open-pit mine and waste storage proposed for the headwaters of the region. And now, it seems at long last that the end is in sight.

Pebble’s history in Bristol Bay is long, full of jumps forward and backward. For the last year; however, protections for this one-of-a-kind region have been moving forward.

On Nov. 25, 2020, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied Pebble Limited Partnership a key permit for the proposed Pebble Mine Project. The project, they determined, did not comply with Clean Waters Act guidelines, and was contrary to public interest. The vast majority of Bristol Bay residents, as well as fishermen and conservationists, celebrated. Geologists consider the Pebble deposit the largest untapped resource of gold and copper in the world, estimating it to be worth around $500 billion. With that amount of money at stake, the fight isn’t over until permanent protections are in place — even with this permit denied, Pebble could still become a reality.

Courtesy Photo 
Drift-netters anchored up in Bristol Bay.

Courtesy Photo Drift-netters anchored up in Bristol Bay.

Veteran bear viewing guide Drew Hamilton and veteran bear hunting guide Tia Shoemaker couldn’t agree more that Bristol Bay needs permanent protections. Hamilton calls Bristol Bay “the overlap in ecology and economy that will protect, support and sustain Alaskans in the future, just as it has done for tens of thousands of years,” adding, “It’s a unique and wild place that needs to be protected from politicians who can’t see past the next election cycle and view Alaska as some sort of natural resource warehouse.”

Tia Shoemaker calls Bristol Bay the “Serengeti of Alaska — truly one of the last, great game fields.” She’s calling on hunters to protect their own interests by defending one of the most ecologically rich and pristine wild places of Earth.

“Habitat destruction and the ever-growing need for ‘more’ are among the biggest threats hunters face today. Without permanent protection for Bristol Bay, the threat of an open-pit mine proposed by foreign-owned companies looms over us,” Shoemaker said.

So, how does Bristol Bay get permanent protections? Bristol Bay organizations including United Tribes of Bristol Bay, Bristol Bay Native Association and Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation see it as a two-part process, the first part of which can — and should — happen as soon as possible. The first step is the Environmental Protection Agency solidifying Clean Waters Act Section 404(c) protections, preventing mining industries from using the headwaters of Bristol Bay “as a disposal site, whenever [the EPA] determines… that the discharge of such materials into such area will have an unacceptable adverse effect on municipal water supplies, shellfish beds and fishery areas (including spawning and breeding areas), wildlife, or recreational areas.”

Sockeye salmon in front of C Creek, off Little Togiak Lake in the Bristol Bay watershed, on August 8, 2018. Courtesy Photo / Mary Catharine Martin)

Sockeye salmon in front of C Creek, off Little Togiak Lake in the Bristol Bay watershed, on August 8, 2018. Courtesy Photo / Mary Catharine Martin)

After a twice-peer reviewed study, the EPA issued a 404(c) Proposed Determination — essentially, proposed protections — in 2014. Pebble sued. Then, in 2019, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt had a closed-door meeting with Pebble CEO Tom Collier. Hours later, Pruitt announced he was withdrawing the assessment. In 2020, the Environmental Investigation Agency released secret videotapes of Collier and Northern Dynasty CEO Ron Thiessen telling actors posing as investors about their close relationships with Alaska politicians and their direct line to the White House through Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a promoter of the mine. The tapes blew up, Alaska’s senators made clear that they oppose Pebble Mine, and Collier resigned. Still, Pruitt’s decision breathed new life into Pebble. On Oct. 29 of this year, however, The United States District Court for the State of Alaska ruled in favor of Trout Unlimited, overturning the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2019 decision to withdraw those protections — and now the EPA’s 2014 Proposed Determination, which made it clear that large-scale mining would have negative impacts on Bristol Bay’s fisheries and ecosystems, is back in place, just as it was in 2014.

Shortly after that, the EPA announced a timeline for the next steps, now that the proposed determination is back in place: in agency-speak, a recommended determination, then final determination. They plan to get to the recommended determination before the salmon return next year — which means protections could formally be in place with a final determination next summer. In the announcement, made this November, EPA Region 10 Acting Regional Administrator Michelle Pirzadeh said that Bristol Bay “highlights the essential benefits that clean water provides to the environment and to communities across the country” and that the announcement “underscores EPA’s commitment to making science-based decisions to protect our natural environment, prevent pollution, and protect a sustainable future for all Americans.”

The second thing that will need to happen is legislation protecting all of Bristol Bay — essentially, an act of Congress. Alaska’s senior senator, Lisa Murkowski, has been speaking about this with those working to defend the region.

The first step, though — EPA protections — is the one already in play. Section 404(c) protections have been completed only 13 times in the Clean Water Act’s 50-year history. They have been proposed, but not completed, 30 times. There is likely no other place more deserving of these protections than Bristol Bay, as this year’s record run of 66 million sockeye highlights. The fishery supports 15,000 jobs and annually brings in $2 billion. There are also the millions of dollars generated by the guiding industry that supports Drew Hamilton, Tia Shoemaker and others.

There’s more at stake than just economics, however. Indigenous fishermen Melanie Brown and Triston Chaney’s families have lived in Bristol Bay since time immemorial. Brown setnets in the Naknek District with four generations of her family and views Bristol Bay as a beacon of hope in an imperiled world.

“The land and waters of Bristol Bay have provided for its people and the world for millennia. This precious, priceless habitat can not only continue to produce salmon in abundance, but this last remaining salmon stronghold, left intact, might teach the world how to restore habitats that have been lost to destructive developments,” Brown said.

Triston Chaney works with his grandpa on a drift-netter in the Nushagak District. After the sockeye season, he guides sport fishermen after monster rainbow trout and other world-class fishing opportunities.

“Bristol Bay is a place of magic, with salmon runs easily surpassing 50 million, trophy sports fishing and wildlife viewing anyone can dream of. This place needs all the protection it can get from human development,” Chaney said.

Courtesy Photo / Mary Catharine Martin
This photo shows a Bristol Bay sockeye salmon.

Courtesy Photo / Mary Catharine Martin This photo shows a Bristol Bay sockeye salmon.

Commercial fishing captain and direct seafood marketer Steve Kurian summed up a lot of peoples’ feeling about Pebble.

“It’s not just about the major loss of commercial fishing industry jobs that would happen as Pebble came into place. It’s about the loss of heritage and nourishment for those who have called Bristol Bay home for generations, and about permanently losing the opportunity and access as a country to one of the most nutritious wild proteins left on the planet. That some would be willing to put that all at risk, just for Pebble — it’s mind-blowing,” Kurian said.

The ball is now in the EPA’s court. Bristol Bay tribes, fishermen, scientists and conservationists are hopeful the agency will finalize Bristol Bay Clean Waters Act Section 404(c) protections. Once these protections are granted, advocates for Bristol Bay are calling on Congress to introduce and pass legislation preventing future administrations from again attempting to reverse the EPA’s decision, and to permanently protect Bristol Bay’s fisheries and watersheds from large-scale mining projects like Pebble.

• Pride of Bristol Bay is a free column written by Bjorn Dihle and provided by its namesake, a fisherman direct seafood marketer that specializes in delivering the highest quality of sustainably caught wild salmon from Bristol Bay to your doorstep.

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