By Roberta Attanasio, IEAM Blog Editor
In a land of pristine rivers and uncontaminated wilderness, the indigenous people of Bristol Bay have shared bountiful catches of salmon for thousands of years. However, the Pebble Mine—something that has been defined as just an idea—could be changing their way of life. An assessment released last month by the EPA shows the extent of the potential impact that the development of the mine could have on indigenous people and their land.
Bristol Bay villages are situated in watersheds that are home to one of the most magnificent wild salmon nurseries on our planet. All five Pacific species are vital to the economy of the region—they support both commercial and subsistence fishing. About 38 million sockeye salmon return to Bristol Bay every year, making it the largest run in the world.
Christine Woll, a fisheries ecologist, tells The Nature Conservancy “Seeing all of the life that supports itself from these five species of fish is always incredible. Whether it’s the commercial fishing boats setting their nets in the bay, the belugas swimming up the rivers, or the bears and eagles pouncing on their prey, there’s always something to see.”
And Op-Ed contributor Callan Chythlook-Sifsof explains in a New York Times editorial, “My indigenous heritage is Yupik/Inupiat Eskimo. I was raised in an environment centered on salmon. Fishing is what every family does. It is who we are. I spent my summers on the back deck of family fishing boats working multiple fisheries. The boats and fish camps are maintained by generations of families harvesting salmon not only for income, but also for food.”
It is reasonable to expect that large-scale mining in Bristol Bay will likely pose serious risks to the salmon and to indigenous people. However, a few years ago, the Pebble Partnership proposed to develop Pebble mine. Pebble is the largest underdeveloped deposit in the world of gold, copper and molybdenum and is located in the headwaters of the Kvichak and Nushagak Rivers, two of the eight major rivers that feed Bristol Bay.
In 2010, several Alaskan Native tribes requested that the EPA use the Clean Water Act to protect rivers and wetlands in Bristol Bay from development of the proposed Pebble Mine. In response to this request, EPA carried out a comprehensive scientific assessment of the Bristol Bay watershed to understand how large-scale mining could potentially affect water quality and salmon ecosystems. A team of experts reviewed existing information, including peer-reviewed research published in scientific journals, state and federal agency reports, knowledge of agency staff, input from other experts, and knowledge from tribal Elders.
A draft assessment was then made available for public comment and independent scientific peer review in 2012. A revised draft was shared again for public comment and peer review in 2013.
The final assessment, “An Assessment of Potential Mining Impacts on Salmon Ecosystems of Bristol Bay, Alaska,” was released on January 15, 2014. The official fact sheet reports that “large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed poses risks to salmon, wildlife and Native Alaska cultures.” However, as a scientific report, the assessment does not recommend policy or regulatory decisions.
Among other findings, the fact sheet also reveals that “Depending on the size of the mine, EPA estimates 24 to 94 miles of salmon-supporting streams and 1,300 to 5,350 acres of wetlands, ponds, and lakes would be destroyed. EPA estimates an additional 9 to 33 miles of salmon-supporting streams would experience altered streamflows likely to affect ecosystem structure and function.”
For now, the final assessment represents only a technical resource. The challenges of protecting Bristol Bay from large-scale mining still lie ahead.