BBRSDA board member and 25-year Bristol Bay fisherman John Fairbanks writes an opinion piece for The Bellingham Herald. Read below.

Mine restriction would save Bristol Bay salmon

Written by: John Fairbanks
Published: September 1, 2012
Read full article at THE BELLINGHAM HERALD


Last month I returned from my 25th season fishing in one of most productive salmon regions on earth: Bristol Bay Alaska. This fishery supports 14,000 jobs, generates $500 million in annual revenues and has been the backbone for a native way of life for more than 1,000 years. Bristol Bay hosts the largest run of sockeye in the world, or nearly half of the global supply of this healthy, renewable resource. While many other salmon runs have suffered, Bristol Bay’s runs remain strong.

The Bristol Bay fishery benefits Washington State. Of the 800-plus fishermen from Washington who hold commercial permits in Bristol Bay, more than 280 permits are held by North Puget Sound residents. Each of us hire additional crew and spend thousands of dollars in Washington’s economy – on boats, nets, supplies, services, storage, transportation and more. In addition, a number of Bristol Bay sport fishing guides and lodge operators live in Washington. Year after year Washington sport fishermen are drawn to Bristol Bay, while others put it on their fishing “bucket list.”

But this great and sustainable resource is at severe risk. There is a proposal to dig one of the largest open-pit mines ever constructed in North America. The Pebble mine would extract gold, copper and molybdenum near the headwaters of the two of the most productive, salmon-bearing rivers in Bristol Bay. At its minimum proposed footprint the mine is colossal — boasting a 1,300-acre mining pit, a 3,600-acre tailings impoundment behind a 685-foot high earthen dam and a 3,200-acre waste rock pile. Its projected footprint of 54 square miles would cover an area twice the size of Bellingham. The mine’s backers predict they’ll need about 1,000 employees to operate Pebble, a pale number compared to the 14,000 jobs that rely on Bristol Bay’s healthy fish and clean water.

Pebble would generate 10 billion tons of toxic waste that must be stored and treated “in perpetuity,” all in an area subject to earthquakes and flooding. Recently a group of expert scientists convened to review a Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment produced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Of particular concern was the idea of treating and storing mine waste forever. How can any company or government plan structures and monitoring that last 20,000 to 30,000 years? Furthermore, once the value has been extracted from the land the owners will cease operation, exit the region and leave the containment for others to manage.

Unlike other issues, the EPA has support for its report from a nationwide, bipartisan coalition that has united to protect Bristol Bay. The agency’s findings are notable, and in some cases, disturbing. The EPA’s report states that even without a serious disaster or a thousand and one cumulative small leaks and spills, the Pebble project would destroy up to 87 miles of fish-bearing streams and rivers, and up to 4,200 acres of salmon wetland habitat.

I won’t deny the need for gold, copper and molybdenum in our modern society. However, the Pebble mine is simply the wrong project in the wrong location. The late Jay Hammond, ex-governor of Alaska, summed it up perfectly when he said “I couldn’t imagine a worse location for a mine of this type, unless it was in my kitchen.” The Bristol Bay watershed is an elaborate web of rivers, streams and habitat that’s ideal for producing and sustaining huge salmon runs. It’s as if this land was designed specifically for this purpose. We rely on the salmon as do the many species of this region. Fortunately, there’s a solution to this risk. By using the power of the Clean Water Act the EPA can place common-sense restrictions on the proposed Pebble Mine that will protect the streams and waters from mining pollution. They can preserve a $500 million annual industry, while still allowing for future responsible development.

Doing so would save enormous sums of money and years for the mining companies in the permitting process, and for the state and federal agencies that must review the project. It will also give the commercial fishing, sport fishing and other industries certainty and remove a serious threat to their livelihoods.

Here in the Northwest we have learned the hard way on how quickly we can lose a resource and the benefits it provides. We are currently spending billions of dollars trying to recover a fraction of what’s been lost. It’s time to draw the line in our last great American salmon factory – Bristol Bay.

John Fairbanks of Bellingham is a board member of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association. Reach him at Go to for more information about the organization.


Read John’s full, original article click here.