How to Protect Bristol Bay’s Salmon for the Long Haul

Credit…Luis Sinco/Getty Images

By Jason Metrokin

This essay was initially published in the New York Times Opinion section on July 4, 2022.

ANCHORAGE — Bristol Bay is a place defined by salmon. For those of us who live and work in this region of wetlands, rivers and tundra, our lives revolve around this amazing fish. This spring the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a ban on the disposal of mining waste — a widely celebrated move to protect the bay and its salmon from the infamous Pebble Mine project, which has sought to extract precious metals from beneath the bay for decades. But this ban, while powerful, will not, on its own, fully protect Bristol Bay if it’s approved.

History has not been kind to wild salmon. Most places that once had healthy wild salmon runs now have few fish return to spawn. Bristol Bay is one of the last strongholds for all five species of Pacific salmon, particularly sockeye. But Bristol Bay’s salmon now face threats, too. The most immediate one is the proposed Pebble Mine, which, if built, would exploit a large copper, gold and molybdenum deposit that straddles two watersheds critical for Bristol Bay’s salmon runs. If permitted to move forward, Pebble could be one of the largest open pit mines in North America, if not the world.

Last year, over 65 million wild sockeye salmon returned to the region’s commercial waters, and this year the Alaska Department of Fish and Game predicts a return of just over 73 million. In addition to feeding the people of the region, these fish support a thriving commercial salmon industry that generates $2.2 billion in annual economic benefits and half the world’s sockeye harvest.

Scientific studies have shown that the development and operation of a mining project like Pebble on Bristol Bay could cause irrevocable damage to the region’s salmon. The Environmental Protection Agency notes that one likely impact is the “permanent” loss of approximately 100 miles of streams that support salmon. Mining operations, which could last from 20 to over 100 years, would also generate approximately 10 billion tons of waste rock, according to the partnership behind the project.

In May, E.P.A. proposed to restrict Pebble’s use of certain waters within three important watersheds as the disposal site for mine wastes under the Clean Water Act. The agency held hearings in Alaska about the veto and is accepting public comments until Sept. 6. The veto, if put into effect, would be a major step toward blocking the current mining proposal. But without legislation from Congress and land conservation, E.P.A.’s regulatory protection won’t be enough. And this fight against Pebble, which started nearly two decades ago, could continue for decades longer.

While supporters of the project claim Pebble could be a new economic driver for the region and Alaska and complementary to the fishery, such claims are unsubstantiated. Northern Dynasty Minerals, the company behind the project, has only completed a preliminary economic feasibility assessment for the project, and most of the design plans for the project infrastructure are still merely conceptual. And while the company has said the construction and operation of the mine would employ thousands, Bristol Bay residents have rightfully wondered whether the jobs will be substantial or permanent. Protecting the commercial fishing economy, subsistence uses, traditional activities and the cultural resources of the region from the impacts of mining operations far outweigh any of these speculative benefits.

E.P.A. actions under the Clean Water Act have been historically durable, but they can be changed or undone by a future administration. In addition, E.P.A.’s proposal is focused on the core of the Pebble deposit. There are other mineral prospects in the region, including many that are controlled by Pebble, that would not be regulated under the proposed action. Northern Dynasty Minerals has vowed to stay the course and continues to look at new mining scenarios and technologies that would allow it to proceed regardless of what E.P.A. proposes or approves.

That is why federal legislation is also needed to address the threats posed by Pebble. Such legislation could address the interests of the State of Alaska, provide for economic resilience in Bristol Bay and permanently protect our salmon from risks like the mining of the Pebble deposit. While specific proposals are still under development, legislation could protect a large area of the region, compensate Alaska for lost mining royalty and tax revenue and would have the force of law. Our talks with the Alaska congressional delegation on this issue have been productive.

Lastly, conservation easements can be used to protect the habitats that Bristol Bay salmon need to spawn, grow up and return to the sea. One such effort aims to limit future development on a slice of the bay — over 44,000 acres of land and waters — owned by the Pedro Bay Corporation, the village corporation for the Alaska Native village of Pedro Bay, in the three most productive bay watersheds of Iliamna Lake.

The Conservation Fund and the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust are working to raise $20 million by the end of 2022 to complete the deal. (The Bristol Bay Native Corporation is a partner in the effort.) Once completed, it will block the construction of a road that Pebble needs to access a deepwater port. It would also provide long-term financial stability to Pedro Bay Corporation and its shareholders.

E.P.A. action, legislation and on-the-ground conservation would not be enough as separate efforts, but together, they can permanently protect Bristol Bay, the salmon and our way of life. The new opportunity to preserve salmon fishing and the way of life it makes possible is critical. Future generations will be thankful that we did everything in our power to protect Bristol Bay.

As we head into the fishing season, the fish are coming back to us, perhaps in record numbers again this year. We are grateful for this abundance, and we are determined to take care of it.

Jason Metrokin is President and C.E.O. of the Bristol Bay Native Corporation.