Sockeye sock out

This is a column from Robert Montgomery for ESPN Outdoors. As a Senior Writer for BASS Publications, Montgomery has written about conservation, environment, and access issues for more than two decades.

For the first time since 2007, anglers fished for Chinook salmon along California's coast.

Still, there was not much enthusiasm for this year's small-scale re-opening. That's because the fish that once surged by the millions up the Sacramento River to spawn continue to dwindle toward extinction.

During the fall of 2009, an estimated 39,500 Chinook migrated into the Sacramento, less than a third of the number that biologists had predicted.

On up the Pacific coast toward Canada, more salmon stocks suffer a similar fate. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries office reports that "salmonid species on the west coast of the United States have experienced dramatic declines in abundance during the past several decades ... "

The story is not a new one. For years we've recognized the decline, but have been unable to stop it despite extensive hatchery programs and mitigation of habitat. That's because the salmon is one of the toughest fish at the end of a line, but one of the most fragile in relation to its habitat.

Unlike with bass and other more adaptable species, the slightest change in the quality, chemistry, flow, or temperature of the water can have catastrophic consequences for the survival of a salmonid species, as can streamside erosion and dams, which block migration.


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In the beginning, of course, we didn't realize how our hydro dams, water diversions, manufacturing, agriculture, and mining would harm salmon.

Now, we do, although it's probably too late to save many of the salmon fisheries in the Lower 48.

But it's not too late to save the most pristine and bountiful salmon fishery left in the United States and possibly the world -- Bristol Bay, Alaska.

The largest runs of sockeye on earth frequent these 40,000 square miles of lands, lakes, and rivers. They are joined by Chinook, coho, pink and chum salmon, as well as trophy rainbow trout, Arctic char, Dolly Varden, grayling, lake trout, and northern pike.

Brown and black bear, wolves, moose, caribou eagles, and waterfowl live here, too, sharing their home with native Alaskans who have relied on the bounty of the land and water to sustain them for thousands of years.

Additionally, commercial fishermen have worked the waters of Bristol Bay for a century or more, providing the salmon served in restaurants and sold in markets all over the country.

That commercial fishery is the most valuable in the world, according to the Sportsman's Alliance for Alaska (SAA). It accounts for more than 30 percent of all Alaska salmon harvests and 52 percent of all private sector jobs in the region. It generates about $270 million annually to the Alaska economy, with the sport fishery contributing more than $60 million.

How, then, is it even conceivable that state and federal officials are considering permits for placement of what would be one of the largest mines in the world at the headwaters of Bristol Bay? Based on recent history, this should be a no-brainer.

And it is for sports anglers, commercial fishermen, and native Alaskans who have joined in opposition to the proposed Pebble Mine. Traditionally, they have been at odds over allocations, but now they are allied to save the salmon and the pristine ecosystem that allow them to thrive.

They have been joined by hundreds of companies that produce fishing, hunting, and outdoor equipment, including Abel, Berkley, Okuma, Patagonia, Strike King, and Yakima. Jewelers, including Tiffany & Co., have pledged not to buy Pebble Mine gold.

"How can something like two foreign mining companies proposing to build the biggest open-pit mine in North America in the heart of arguably the best part of Alaska be a good idea?" SAA's Scott Hed said. "It's almost absurd to believe it's real.

"Pretty much everyone has heard about the debate over oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but far too few have heard about the incredible threat facing Bristol Bay."

Sam Snyder of the Renewable Resources Coalition added that this massive copper and gold mine on state-owned land "would be just the tip of the iceberg.

"Others have claims in the area as well, and they're just waiting for Pebble to put in the power and the roads. Then they will go in.

"Many people believe that this is the biggest issue in Alaska environmental history, and I agree."

For their part, the owners of the Pebble Limited Partnership -- Northern Dynasty of Canada and Anglo American of the United Kingdom -- insist that the mining would be done in a safe and environmentally sensitive way.

"We now have some of the most environmentally safe projects in the world and our permitting system is now used as a model by other states and nations," said Gail Phillips of Truth About Pebble, a pro-mine group.

And Kirk Wickersham, an attorney and real estate broker in Anchorage, added, "The opponents assume that there is no technology that can protect salmon streams, and that there is no possibility that such technology could ever be developed. They assume that the possibility of pollution is a certainty, and that the pollution will be so severe and unmitigated that it will wipe out the Bristol Bay fishery."

No one against the mine is saying that pollution would be a certainty. Rather, they believe that the risk is not worth the gamble. They were not reassured this past year, with the revelation that the Pebble Partnership was fined $45,000 for 45 water-use violations during its exploratory work.

"The evidence is overwhelming," Snyder said. "One hundred percent of these types of open-pit mines (25 reviewed) have promised to uphold water-quality standards, and 93 percent have failed in some shape or form. And this would be the second-largest open-pit mine in the world."

Mitigation measures failed for 64 percent, he continued, adding that volcanic activity and a high concentration of fault lines in the area would increase the danger even more.

"Pebble was slammed on its 2006 applications (for permits) and hasn't released anything since," Snyder said. "The mantra now is that there is no plan to oppose because Pebble hasn't yet said what it will be doing. But the size of the project is growing, from 6 billion tons of ore produced to more than 10 billion, less than 1 percent of which would be minerals of copper, gold, or molybdenum."

Based on a 2008 review of Pebble documents in the Alaska Law Review, here is but a fraction of what might be carved out of the headwaters of one of the world's great fisheries if state and federal authorities provide permits:

• An open pit mine at Pebble West that may be about 2,000 feet deep
and cover about two square miles and an underground mine at
Pebble East that may be of comparable size and 5,000 feet deep.

• Various stream diversion channels, wells and devices to: (a)
prevent water from filling the open pit, (b) extract water that
would be used for processing the ore, (c) transport ore concentrate
in a slurry via pipelines, and (d) transport wastes in a slurry via

• Five dams or embankments composed of waste rock and earthenfill
material that together would span about nine linear miles. The
three largest dams would be 740 feet high and 3 miles long, 700
feet high and 2.9 miles long, and 710 feet high and 1.3 miles
long. These dams and embankments would create and contain
ponds that would cover at least 10 square miles and store
chemically reactive, ore-processing wastes known as "tailings."

"I am worried that this mine will pollute our rivers with sulfuric acid and heavy metals," said Bobby Andrew, a spokesman for Nunamta Aulukestai ("Caretaker of Our Lands" in Yupik language), an association of eight villages.

"I am worried that the drainage from the mine and billions of tons of mining waste upstream will ensure that my generation will be the last to grow up knowing the salmon will always return to feed our people. I am worried that the clean Alaskan water and fisheries that the world takes for granted will become yet another memory from our past."

Jack Stanford, a professor of ecology at the University of Montana, added, "As an expert on rivers, I can say with authority that Bristol Bay is in nearly the same situation that faced the great salmon rivers in the Lower 48 before they were lost to development, dams, pollution, and other factors. The only real difference for Bristol Bay is that the decision can be by informed history.

"On the other hand, wishfully thinking that you can have it all -- a mining district and a thriving fishery -- will take Bristol Bay down the same road as so many once-great salmon rivers."

To find out more, go to www.SportsmansAlliance4AK.org, www.SaveBristolBay.org, and www.RenewableResourcesCoalition.org.

Also, voice your opposition to the Pebble Mine to your members of Congress. Just go to www.Congress.org and enter your ZIP code for contact information.

There's still time to save one salmon fishery.