At the intersection of marine conservation and social, economic, environmental and food justice

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Tell the EPA You Support the Fishermen of Bristol Bay by September 19

This post comes to us from Sarah Schumann, a Rhode Island shellfish harvester and Alaska salmon canner.

About once a week, I dream about low tide. Not a regular low tide, but a near-total emptying out of the bay. I dream that the soft bottom is suddenly exposed – and with it, acres of quahogs or clams, packed shell to shell. Then I go out and frolic in the abundance. I grab shellfish as if they were daisies in a summer field, filling bushel after bushel, delirious with joy.

Other fishermen have told me they have similar dreams. Nets plugged. Traps filled to the brim. Fish doubled up on the hook. I would guess that all humans have some form of this basic “abundance dream” buried deep in our psyches, but once our hunter-gatherer instincts have been activated by commercial fishing, it becomes a regular part of our nights - even long after we’ve retired from the water.

Boats in Dillingham, AK, awaiting the start of the spring season

The only place where I have seen this kind of abundance with my waking eyes is in Bristol Bay, Alaska. I’ve spent the last seven summers working at a salmon cannery here, far from my winter home of Rhode Island. From atop my perch above the eight giant pressure cookers that I operate, I stare out at a warehouse full of rows of bronze-colored cans full of salmon. As fast as the forklifts can load pallets of cans onto barges, we keep filling more and more of them. In the glow cast by the midnight sun, they resemble thousands of ingots of gold.

But some people have a different kind of abundance dream: one that involves real gold – and copper. In an area 125 miles northeast of here, the Pebble Partnership, an enterprise mostly owned by the Canadian company Northern Dynasty, hopes to develop the largest open-pit mine on North American soil. By digging a mile into the ground, they estimate they could get at $300-$500 billion in metals buried there.

The only problem is this: that huge mineral deposit lies directly underneath the headwater streams and wetlands that feed two of Bristol Bay’s most important river systems. Those streams and rivers are where five species of Pacific salmon return each year to spawn.

By now, many of you have heard of the proposed Pebble Mine. You may know that commercial fishermen, along with Native tribes and sports fishermen, have been battling this proposal for a decade. When they were rebuffed by many within their own state’s political system, they turned to the federal government – specifically, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – to protect their fishery from the effects of mining.

What you may not have heard yet is that on July 19th, the EPA announced a proposed action to protect Bristol Bay fisheries by severely limiting the extent of mining that can take place there. This is the result of years of advocacy by the people who depend on Bristol Bay salmon. It is their last, best chance to prevent devastation of one of the world’s biggest salmon runs by industrial mining.

The EPA will be taking public comment on this proposed action until September 19th. Input from members and supporters of the commercial fishing industry and their supporters around the country will be key to pushing the EPA to stand by its own scientists’ advice and finalize the proposed protections for Bristol Bay.

You can sign onto a letter created by the Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay, a coalition of fishermen around the nation who stand in solidarity with their peers in Bristol Bay. Or you can submit an original comment by following the instructions at the EPA’s own website.

Faced with two forms of astounding abundance – one animal and the other mineral – the people and tribes of Bristol Bay had a choice to make. An estimated 80% of the region’s year-round residents have chosen to oppose the mine. Not only is the mine enormous, they say – its total footprint could be as large as 50 square miles and it could require a 700-foot tailings dam to store its liquid waste – but it would be situated at one of the worst locations in the world: a totally pristine, intact natural habitat that supports the world’s most bountiful sockeye salmon run.

Three years of in-depth EPA research have expressed similar concerns. The EPA’s proposed protections state that routine operations of even a much, much smaller mine could disrupt stream flow and wetland habitat to the point of having a major adverse impact on salmon. EPA administrators are poised to act on that finding, by protecting Bristol Bay once and for all.

The EPA’s current public comment period is the last time that non-Alaskans will be able to weigh in on the outcome of Pebble Mine. You can help ensure that the years of hard work by Bristol Bay communities and fishermen finally pay off by signing a letter before September 19th.

Future Bristol Bay fishermen play in the boatyard


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