Paul Doscher: A looming threat to Alaska’s salmon-rich Bristol Bay

  • The tundra in the Bristol Bay watershed is dominated by water. Courtesy of Paul Doscher

  • Kvichak River, the primary outlet for Lake Illiamna into Bristol Bay Courtesy of Paul Doscher

  • Alaska’s Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Courtesy of Paul Doscher

  • The Alagnak River flows into Bristol Bay Courtesy of Paul Doscher

  • In Alaska, brown bears share the river with anglers during the salmon season, including on the Kulik River in the Katmai National Park and Preserve. Courtesy of Paul Doscher

  • Nonvianuk Lake on the Alagnak River Courtesy of Paul Doscher

For the Monitor
Published: 1/20/2019 12:30:17 AM

I know it’s a bit of a cliche, but I’ve had a bucket list item of one day going to a remote lodge in Alaska in pursuit of catching one of the world’s largest rainbow trout.

Rainbow trout are found pretty much all across the globe, thanks to (or no thanks to, depending on your perspective about exotic invasive species) past fisheries managers, but Alaska is one of the places where the species is native. It occupies rivers and lakes, and has an important link to the five species of salmon that visit those waters to spawn every summer and fall.

That connection is that the trout bulk up on enough protein and fat to make it through the brutal Alaska winters by eating prodigious amounts of the eggs the salmon deposit in the rivers and streams.

There are so many of these salmon (millions) that they are the base of a food chain that supports humans, eagles, wolves, foxes and most notably the iconic brown bears. When the bears are engrossed in fishing they essentially ignore everything else around them, including humans.

So, back to the trip. I booked a four-day excursion at a lodge on Kvichak River, a 1½-hour flight and half-hour boat trip from Anchorage. This is tundra country, where trees are few and far between, and the horizon is filled with almost as many ponds, lakes and wetlands as rock and dry land. And the rivers are, with no exaggeration, among the most productive fisheries in the world.

This region, known as Bristol Bay, hosts the world’s largest runs of sockeye salmon (the familiar “red” salmon you’ll see in the deli section of your grocery store). This past fall, the state fisheries agency estimated that more than 90 million sockeye salmon returned to the rivers, and that supported a local fishing economy that provides 14,000 jobs and is worth $1.5 billion. That’s half of the entire world harvest of this fish.

This cornucopia of fish supports a fall recreational fishery for rainbow trout that is among the world’s largest. The gold medal for an angler here is to catch one more than 30-inches long. I fished four different rivers over four days, three of which were reached by float plane trips of between 1 and 1½ hours long. Two were on remote streams that can be reached only by plane. One, the Talarik River, drains an enormous watershed into Alaska’s third largest lake, Illiamna.

This is one of the last great places on the planet. One of those places where the ecosystem is intact, and except for the prospect of climate change, could remain that way indefinitely. Well, except for climate change and one other major threat. A Canadian mining company wants to create the world’s largest open-pit copper and gold mine, on state and federal land, right in the heart of the Bristol Bay watershed.

That mine would require the creation of a tailings “lake” created with a 700-foot-high earthen dam, 4,000 acres in size, that will hold toxic waste from the processing of the rock that is mined here. It would be the largest such toxic soup ever created.

It’s important to state that if nothing goes wrong, the mine will create a few thousand jobs and not affect the salmon. But that’s a big leap, since these types of earthen dam tailings lakes have a history of failure almost everywhere they are built. And the dam has to last forever, since the toxic waste is a perpetual legacy of this kind of mining. If it is breached, it’s so long salmon.

This is in a highly seismically active place. Alaska had 50,000 earthquakes in 2018. One, in November (just two months after my trip), was a 7.0-level quake that did enormous damage in Anchorage. A 1964 quake (9.2 level) shook the region and was the largest quake ever recorded in the United States and second largest in the world. It took decades for the region to recover.

So why would anyone want to risk the world’s most productive sustainable fishery, in a place where one big mistake would wipe out that fishery, perhaps forever? It may be another cliche, but it sure seems like corporate greed is the motivation.

The mine has been controversial from the start, and recently some of the investors have pulled out, putting it’s economic feasibility in question. And in what can only be described as an extremely rare positive environmental decision by the Trump administration, the EPA left intact an Obama administration decision that the mine is a potential threat to water quality. The regulatory process for the mine is ongoing and opinion about it in Alaska is split.

So what does this mean to those of us who live on the East Coast? It’s a classic case of how government can be manipulated by wealthy corporate interests to advance a project that is clearly not in the long-term interest of the citizens of the state. (Shades of Northern Pass?) It’s short-term thinking and profits taking priority over the long-term health and prosperity of the environment and local citizens (the local Native American groups in the Bristol Bay area unanimously oppose the mine).

It’s a battle to save one of the truly well-managed, sustainable fisheries in a world where such successes are increasingly rare. There’s a lot to learn from how the Alaska salmon fishery has been managed. Why risk one of the best examples of successful natural resource management for minerals that can, and will, be found in many less extraordinary places around the planet?

Former Republican Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens said it best: “I am not opposed to mining, but (Pebble) is the wrong mine in the wrong place.”

So, go to the store tomorrow, buy some Alaska or other Pacific salmon, knowing that you are supporting thousands of local fishermen and women, and check out to find out more about this important issue.

Oh, and I didn’t manage to catch one of those 30-inch rainbow trout. I came close, but the prize went to a young woman who caught two on her first fishing trip ever. Can’t beat that.

(Paul Doscher lives in Weare and is a former national trustee of Trout Unlimited.)

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