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Protecting Bristol Bay: A Fight Against Pebble Mine

Save Bristol Bay from the Pebble Mine.

An Interview with Alaska Trout Unlimited‘s Jenny Weis. Media provided by Bjørn Olson.

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Stand for Salmon! Photo by Bjørn Olson
Stand for Salmon! 📸: Bjørn Olson.

Streams overflowing with brightly colored salmon, crystal clear water, stunning mountains, plump grizzly bears- Alaska’s Bristol Bay has it all. And now, with the Pebble mine proposed to be placed at the Bay’s headwaters, many are worried for the health of these beautiful, bountiful waterways.

As Alpacka launches our Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Series, we wanted to take this chance to dive a little deeper into the conservation efforts happening to protect waterways that the angling/hunting world and packrafting often share. We spoke with Trout Unlimited’s Alaska Communications Director Jenny Weis to hear more about the importance of protecting the Bristol Bay area from Pebble mine.

Many people within this tight-knit community are working hard to protect these waterways. Read our Q&A below with Jenny for more information, and check out Bjørn Olson’s inspiring photos from their travels to the Bristol Bay area. Also read testimony from Indigenous community leaders speaking up for this special place.

Save Bristol Bay from the Pebble Mine.

How has Trout Unlimited been involved in the Pebble mine fight?

Trout Unlimited’s Alaska program has worked on this issue for over 10 years now. We work closely with lodge owners, hunters and anglers who love Bristol Bay, and partners in the region like United Tribes of Bristol Bay and Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay to ensure that decision makers at all levels (regionally, state, and federal) know that Bristol Bay is ‘salmon country’ and Pebble mine doesn’t fit into that picture.

We have staff working on organizing, communications, political and legal strategy, and then we hire scientists and other technical experts on an as-needed basis. For example, right now we are working with experts as we review the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Pebble’s mining application. We also have volunteers across the state and country who help us get the word out when there’s an action opportunity to help protect Bristol Bay.

Save Bristol Bay from the Pebble Mine.

Why do you love Bristol Bay? What makes you stay engaged?

Last August, I was fishing a Bristol Bay river with friends visiting from Colorado. They wanted to catch their limits of wild salmon to bring home with them for Christmas gifts and to enjoy throughout the winter. I already had a freezer full and just wanted to catch and release some big rainbows. Sure enough, eight hours later my friends’ freezer was stocked, and I’d caught a few of the beefiest, most colorful trout I’d ever laid my eyes upon. It was the best day of my summer, and a wholly average day in Bristol Bay.

The more I see of the region, the more I’m filled with awe and the more responsibility I feel to help protect it – not just for the continuation of such an amazing and beautiful fishery, but for the local people I meet. To them this issue is deeply personal. The salmon fishery literally and figuratively puts food on the table – providing jobs and free meat. Culture here is inextricably tied to salmon, and they intend to pass on those traditions to their children as their ancestors and elders did for them. It’s an honor to stand behind them and help make that possible.

Bikes and boats in Bristol Bay. 📸: Bjørn Olson.
Bikes and boats in Bristol Bay. 📸: Bjørn Olson.

What are your desired outcomes for Bristol Bay?

In the short term, we hope to help stop Pebble’s most important permit from being granted, which is under review and advancing rapidly right now! An initial review of the permit application makes it very clear that Pebble simply will not protect the fisheries of Bristol Bay like they claim. Worse, the company has made it clear that they will expand the mine far beyond what we’re seeing today, so this permit is really just a chance for them to get their foot in the door, build the infrastructure, and then create a much larger project with even more immense impact.

In the long term though, our goal at Trout Unlimited is to ensure there are upfront protections in place in the region so we don’t have to continually say, “NO PEBBLE MINE” time after time for another decade as we have for the last decade. The people who live in Bristol Bay are clear that the economic future they see for their region is based on renewable resources, not at the expense of those resources. We support that work in every way possible, one of which is through the Bristol Bay Fly Fishing & Guide Academy, where we help train local youth to become sportfishing guides at the many lodges throughout the region.

“Culture here is inextricably tied to salmon, and they intend to pass on those traditions to their children as their ancestors and elders did for them”- Jenny Weis. Photo by Bjørn Olson

What are the potential effects TU has identified if Pebble mine does goes through?

Oh gosh, I could write for 100 pages on this, unfortunately. If I had to summarize the worst of it, I’d say:

  1. Risk to the overall fishery. Bristol Bay remains the wild salmon powerhouse it is today because it has ample, intact upstream habitat. Scientific analysis is very clear that Pebble would destroy the headwaters of two of the major arteries flowing into the Bay (the Kvichak and Nushagak Rivers) and have immense impact felt across the region. When you remove critical habitat, add metals and chemicals, change temperatures, block and de-water streams, pave over wetlands (etc.) the fish will be impacted. And when they are, they will not come back. We still have a chance to get the wild salmon story right in Bristol Bay and not mess it up.
  2. Risk to our last thriving run of wild chinook salmon on the Nushagak River. King salmon are an iconic Alaskan resource that are tragically dwindling in nearly every single region of the state and country, except in Bristol Bay. Pebble is trying to build atop our LAST thriving wild king salmon fishery, and that would be a huge, huge loss – culturally and recreationally for Alaska and the world.
  3. Ruining the wild character of the region. Our lodge friends tell us that even without spill or accident, Pebble would ruin the character of the region and their guests would not come back. People don’t come to Bristol Bay to fish near industrial mining noise, traffic, and construction. They come for wilderness, thriving runs of wild salmon, and majestically enormous rainbow trout. Same with the commercial fishery – the state and local entities have invested in creating the Bristol Bay Salmon brand as pristine and reputable. Pebble would demean this reputation just by existing. That’s an automatic impact to more than 14,000 jobs and an economy valued at $1.5 billion each year.
  4. Likelihood of turning Bristol Bay into an industrial mining district. Pebble itself is a massive threat. However, it gets worse. If you look at the land ownership map around Pebble’s deposit, a massive portion of the region is vulnerable to mining development. Those projects are not being pursued because of the remoteness of the region and lack of infrastructure. If Pebble goes in and adds roads, a massive power plant, ferry terminals on Lake Iliamna, tanker ships crossing Cook Inlet, etc., other mines across the region would become much more feasible.
Save Bristol Bay from the Pebble Mine.

What can we do to help stop Pebble?

The Army Corps of Engineers is currently taking public comment on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Pebble mine. This the MOST IMPORTANT document of the permitting process and the most important comment period for Bristol Bay to date. Now is the definitive time to take a hard stand and tell the Army Corps of Engineers to reject Pebble’s permit for its unacceptable impact to Bristol Bay and incomplete permit application. Once you do, please tell your friends to do the same! We have until July 1 to submit comments. Donations help too!

We recognize that it gets tiring to keep saying ‘no’ over and over and over again. But until the protections are in place, we have to. Pebble only has to win once, but we have to win hundreds of times. Luckily for our big and growing community – we’re doing it.

Save Bristol Bay from the Pebble Mine. Photo by Bjorn Olson.

For more information on efforts to protect Bristol Bay, check out the following resources:

United Tribes of Bristol Bay

Alaska Conservation Foundation

Save Bristol Bay

Trout Unlimited

Alaska Wilderness League

All media provided by Bjørn Olson. Bjørn is a life-long Alaskan adventurer, photographer and story-teller with a focus on conservation issues and adventure films, in the 49th state.