Fate of Bristol Bay fishery: It matters here

Source: Seattle PI

Possible location of a giant mine, flanked by streams that support Bristol Bay’s giant salmon fishery, is “of major economic significance to Washington state” as well as Alaska, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., argued Wednesday.

The senator appeared at Fisherman’s Terminal, flanked by workers from fisheries-dependent businesses, to argue that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must consider jobs here in evaluating whether to permit the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska.

“Our family depends on Bristol Bay for its livelihood and we are not alone:  There are 900 permit-holders in Washington,” said Ben Blakey, a third generation Bristol Bay fisherman whose family founded Snopac Seafoods.

The EPA has delivered a draft environmental assessment that has raised alarm in the fisheries community.  The federal agency will hold a hearing on Bristol Bay on Thursday at 2 p.m. in the Federal Building.

But Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty has fired back, in a letter to EPA, saying its assessment is “not lawfully grounded” and “usurps and undermines the regulatory authorities” of the state and other federal agencies.

John Shively, CEO of the Pebble Partnership, the mine developer, reacted to the EPA assessment by saying:  “We believe it would be unprecedented and entirely inappropriate for the EPA to take steps to stop our project before it has been fully designed . . .”

Cantwell shot back on Thursday:  “The authority of the EPA to act under the Clean Water Act is very clear . . .  “I think some people would like to attack the findings by discrediting EPA.”

And, added Seattle Port Commission president Gael Tarleton, “This is a fishery managed for the world, not just a state . . . Our fishermen make an average wage of $70,000 a year.  The fishing fleet is based here.  The best thing about fishermen is that they spend locally.”

Bristol Bay’s fishery totals nearly $490 million and yields 37 million salmon each year, employing 14,000 people.  Its Kvichak River is the world’s largest single sockeye salmon producer, while the nearby Nushagak River ranks fourth in the world in Chinook salmon.

“The Pebble deposit, the most likely site for near-term, large-scale mining development in the region, is located at the intersection of the Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds,” said the EPA assessment.

It added:

“Eliminated or blocked streams under the minimum and maximum mine footprints would result in the loss of 55 to 87.5 miles of possible spawning and rearing habitats for coho, Chinook and sockeye salmon, rainbow trout and Dolly Varden.”

Norm Van Vactor, of Leader Creek Seafoods, employs 400 people at a processing plant in Naknek, Alaska, with sockeye salmon accounting for the firm’s entire output.

How does he feel about the prospect of a 1,300 square mine put and 3,600 acre reservoir containing toxic byproducts and mine tailings, just upstream from the Kvichak and Nushagak Rivers?

“It’s absolutely staggering,” said Van Vactor.