Bristol Bay Salmon: Drawing a Line in the Tundra

Last updated on November 3rd, 2021

bristol bay sockeye salmon threatened by mining

Alaska’s Bristol Bay is a breathtaking place with a unique ecosystem rich in vast wetlands, winding rivers, streams, forests of spruce and alder, and home to many species of animals, birds, and fish.

The bay is a pristinely beautiful ecosystem that supports thousands of human life and countless wildlife. But It is also home to the most prized salmon ecosystem in the United States, with legendary runs that see some 50-plus million sockeye return annually to spawn and rear in the local watershed.

Spanning nearly 33 million acres, Bristol Bay boasts being the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world, as well as host to runs for several other salmon species such as the pink, chum, coho, and chinook.

The much anticipated annual salmon runs in the bay have been sustaining life in this region for millennia,  just as they continue to do so even now.

An all-important renewable resource, the wild sockeye salmon in the watershed not only sustain human life here but also scores of wildlife populations that include some 240 species of fish, land animals and birds including the brown and grizzly bear and our beloved bald eagle.

This annual ritual in the bay and its tributaries is just as important today to the people who live here as they were to the indigenous cultures of the region some 4000 years ago.

To the local communities, the fish in the bay is still a major source of sustenance, with nearly 80% of their protein intake coming from fish populations (over 50% coming from wild salmon), as well as wildlife attracted to the region such as moose, caribou, and geese.

Fishing is the life-blood of the bay’s economy. On average, the bay, its rivers, and streams provide nearly 40% of all the wild-caught seafood in the United States and support over 20,000 jobs (including some 12,000 in the region) while contributing over a billion and a half dollars in revenues on an annual basis to the national economy.

The Threat to Bristol Bay

This is not the first time that Bristol has been threatened by the prospect of human activity. It has over the years, however, weathered those threats with the help of a variety of temporary protections that have safeguarded the region from companies interested in mining, perhaps, what could be the biggest deposit of gold in the world.

But renewed fears have risen in the bay’s communities. Many are afraid that this time those safeguards could be lifted, negatively impacting the salmon populations and other wildlife on which they depend in and around Bristol Bay.

At the heart of their concerns is the recent EPA move to lift the measures that protect Bristol Bay, opening the door for the long-proposed Pebble Mine, an open-pit gold/copper mine in the headwaters of Bristol Bay.

Local residents, commercial fishermen, and other small businesses say that if the mine were allowed to operate, it would have the potential to cause significant devastation, not only to the bay’s fishery and other wildlife but also to the local and regional economies that depend on the bay.

Most of the residents of Bristol Bay have gone down this road before, and they have always been able to keep those interests at bay. This time, however, at least for now, it looks like they may not have the government’s – not the EPA’s, anyway – protection against big mining.

The proposed mine, the largest in North America (bigger than Utah’s Bingham Canyon Copper Mine) if it goes through, has the potential to destroy thousands of acres of wetlands and up to 94 miles of streams and rivers that support salmon populations.

Opponents of the mine say they are wary of the environmental impact of a major gold and copper mine being operated in the region. They fear the kind of devastation that uranium mining brought to the wildlife and communities living in the Grand Canyon region.

Water pollution from a mine in the region has a high risk of entering the nearby streams and waterways, which is certain to cause significant damage to the natural habitats of the salmon species in the bay.

This is in addition to the possibility of pipeline failures or other similar accidents that could result in the unwanted release of diesel fuel or toxic copper concentrate into the nearby wetlands and streams.

Some Sobering Facts

Mines and water don’t mix. Mines almost always pollute nearby water sources. In fact, about 74% of major gold mines have polluted surface and groundwater sources with a variety of toxins including cyanide, arsenic, diesel fuel, or other hazardous mining waste.

A 2012 study revealed that a whopping 92% of copper mines polluted water. Even the EPA, which is in favor of relaxing mining restrictions near Bristol Bay restrictions, estimates that hard-rock mining has more than 40% of the headwaters of our western U.S. watershed. Those are not good numbers.

The company behind the proposed mine, Northern Dynasty Minerals, projects the mine could employ as many as 2000 people generated up to $500 million in revenues over its lifespan.

sure, it will create some jobs for a few generations and lots of money – but at what cost? The mine could operate for 30 years, or maybe even a hundred, but the benefits of jobs and profits come at a high cost.

Impact on Local Communities

drying sockeye salmon in bristol bay alaska

Bristol Bay is a remote region whose survival is invariably tied to the health of its biggest resource – its fisheries, and in particular its abundant salmon populations.

Commercial fishermen, fish processing plant workers and employees of other local businesses owe their livelihoods to the bay’s bounty.

In addition to having the world’s most prolific salmon fishery, this region also supports whitefish, northern pike, Dolly Varden, lake trout, rainbow trout, Arctic char and halibut, providing over 75 percent of the jobs in a place where there are few other employment opportunities.

Given the rich habitats in and around the bay, it goes without saying that sportfishing and hunting are immensely popular in the area and are also important economic drivers. They could both be adversely impacted by the proposed large-scale mining project.

There are many lodges, guides, bush pilots and other businesses in the region that accommodate anglers, hunters, and tourists who come from near and far to enjoy themselves in this one-of-a-kind ecosystem.

Tourism generates in the area of $100 million on an annual basis, with a big slice of that coming from recreational fishing, as well as wildlife watching, kayaking, hiking, and camping.

Any negative impact on the bay’s waterways or surroundings would lead to a loss of business and income for these local businesses.

Finally, the Bristol Bay region is home to some 7500 people, most of them indigenous Alaskans. For most modern-day Yupik Eskimos, Aleuts, Denés, and others, for whom subsistence fishing, hunting, and harvesting are critical to their survival. Any destruction of wildlife habitat will have devastating and possibly irrevocable consequences for these people in the long run.

A Haven for Wildlife Beyond Salmon

Beyond the abundance of salmon, Bristol Bay is also rich in many different species of animals, some of which are already at risk of extinction.

Some of those endangered species include the North Pacific right whale, an extremely rare and whale species known to frequent the area. Also, threatened sea ducks such as the Steller’s eider, as well as other sea creatures including orcas, belugas, walrus, seals and sea otters present in the region could see increased environmental pressure.

The rich food source of salmon is very helpful for supporting the wide-ranging wildlife in the region, as well as land-based predators that rely on this resource such as the grizzly bears and bald eagles.

Bay of Hope?

For the majority of the people who live around Bristol Bay, many of whom are represented by the United Tribes of Bristol Bay (UTBB) and Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission (SEITC), there are no amount of mining jobs and income that could sway them to compromise on something so important to their culture and way of life.

For them and many others, Bristol Bay represents more than simply valuable minerals under the earth, and they are drawing a line in the tundra, so to speak. They want to preserve the bay’s pristine waters, the salmon runs and the traditions of their forefathers for future generations to come. Who can blame them?

For them, the is the risk of a loss of the salmon and other wildlife in and around the bay is too great a cost to pay in exchange for whatever the economic benefits of a working mine.

They plan to fight, as they’ve done before, any mine or similar proposal that threatens their culture and way of life.

I agree with them – some things cannot be compromised. We need to preserve Bristol Bay and places like it. If we don’t we may find ourselves at a loss one day when our grandchildren ask, “what were guys thinking when you let them destroy the greatest salmon run in the world?”

We would love to hear your thoughts on this important discussion. What do you think?

See follow-up article on the threat to Bristol Bay

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About Avid Angler

Dave "Avid Angler" Miller has been an author and contributor to Reel Adventure Fishing since its inception, going back to 2010. Dave has fished just about every freshwater and saltwater body from coast to coast and enjoys putting a lifetime of angling experience to use in helping others to become better anglers. In addition to penning featured posts, Dave also writes a good deal of our product reviews.