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Northwest fishing fleet renews fight against proposed mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay

Mar 22, 2019

A group of Bristol Bay fishing boats, including Ronn Griffin's Holloway, take a rare break from fishing to rest on the river bank in Egegik, Alaska, in 2015. (Photo courtesy Ronn Griffin)

Thousands of people in the Pacific Northwest — commercial fishermen, their crews, sport fishermen, seafood processors, even many boat builders — depend on wild salmon caught every summer in Alaska’s Bristol Bay. The Trump administration has re-started permitting for a controversial mining project there — and locals are gearing up to fight it.

The battle over the so-called Pebble Mine has gone on for more than a decade. It was on hold in 2014, after then President Barack Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency found that its plans to extract copper, gold and molybdenum would have adverse effects on salmon spawning areas. Now, after withdrawal of the Obama-era restrictions, a revised proposal is under review by the Army Corps of Engineers. A 90-day public comment period on the draft environmental impact statement began March 1. Many opponents of the proposal say that’s not long enough.

“We had 60 million fish return to Bristol Bay last year, in probably a 30- to 40-day period of time. You just don’t have that anywhere else to speak of anymore,” said Ronn Griffin, who lives in Kingston and has been fishing Bristol Bay for more than 35 years.

He’s part of the growing chorus criticizing what they say is a fast-tracked and incomplete permitting process under Trump’s Army Corps of Engineers. Hundreds here are demanding an extension of the comment period past May and that at least one public hearing be held in Seattle, not just Alaska.

“Seattle has a long history and a vested interest in what happens in Bristol Bay,” Griffin said.

In 2012, the EPA held a hearing on the Pebble Mine here, at the request of Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell. Cantwell puts the value of the fishery at $1.5 billion annually and has again called for a Seattle hearing.

Bristol Bay has the last pristine salmon runs in the world — the largest for sockeye. And though it’s thousands of miles from Western Washington state, people here are concerned. Elizabeth Herendeen is with the Businesses for Bristol Bay Coalition. She says they’re demanding the permitting process be put on hold because crucial information is missing.

“This decision, that the Army Corps makes, will not just have long-term impacts on Bristol Bay and those communities, but Washington state as well.  And there’s no reason to not have a public hearing in Seattle,” Herendeen said.

Nearly 800 salmon fishermen in Washington have permits for Bristol Bay.

The Businesses for Bristol Bay Coalition was launched in 2017 with the help of outdoor recreation outfitters, seafood companies and Seattle restauranteur Tom Douglas, among others.  They want the preservation of fishing jobs, which they call “renewable” because they will last as long as the resources do in Bristol Bay and support all kinds of other, related industries.

And, Griffin says, it stands in stark contrast to so many salmon runs in Washington that are suffering because of all the development around them.

“You know, we’re spending millions of dollars trying to salvage the remnants of the runs in Washington State,” he said. “And there’s a perfectly intact ecosystem with a healthy fishery sitting there in Bristol Bay that just needs to be left alone.”