Sunday Review | NYT OPINION | A Gold Rush in Salmon Country
Photo // Sockeye salmon in a river near Bristol Bay in southwestern Alaska, where a company wants to mine gold beneath spawning grounds. Credit Trout Unlimited
SITKA, Alaska — It is almost winter again here. The days shorten and the furrows of the volcano that looms over our town steadily fill with snow. At night my daughters and I watch northern lights dance green across a mountain ridge as we wait for our salmon to thaw for dinner. In the courts there is a case in which the defendant, a fisherman, claims his cloth measuring tape constricted in the cold, causing him to mismeasure his halibut. In another case a fisherman blames his freezer for shrinking a king salmon. Alaska state troopers disagree. Life continues apace.
When I’m not working on our tugboat, I fish with Eric Jordan, a second-generation troller whose parents, like those of so many seasoned fishermen around here, fought for Alaskan statehood so salmon could be better managed. We work the winter line, stretching between Cape Edgecumbe Light and Point Woodhouse. The salmon, chromatic shifts of light prowling the kelp forests, have slowed down by this time of year. Smoked, canned, stacked in the freezer like cordwood, their pumpkin-orange meat sustains us, as it has sustained the Tlingit community on this island for 10,000 years.
The other day, during a slow stretch on the boat, Eric brought up the issue of Pebble Mine. “It makes you want to give up hope, doesn’t it?” he asked.
He was talking about renewed efforts to build a mine at the headwaters of one of the world’s last wild salmon nurseries, at Bristol Bay in southwestern Alaska. Northern Dynasty Minerals, a Canadian company that wants to construct the mine, estimates that 100 million ounces of gold rest beneath the native spawning grounds.
In 2014, after three years of study and millions of public comments of protest, the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that Pebble Mine would commit “irreversible” damage to the wetlands, resulting in “complete loss of fish habitat due to elimination, dewatering and fragmentation of streams, wetlands and other aquatic resources.” The fishery was too valuable to risk and too difficult to mine.
Alaskans had come out overwhelmingly against the measure, a rare example of consensus in a proudly opinionated state. Even the Republican senator Ted Stevens, a staunch supporter of mines, said that this was “the wrong mine in the wrong place.” Investors pulled out and stock prices of Northern Dynasty fell. Slowly, bumper stickers around town denouncing the mine disappeared.
Then Donald Trump, a man in love with all things gold, came along.
On May 1, Scott Pruitt, the new administrator of the E.P.A., met with Tom Collier, the head of the Pebble Mine project, for breakfast. Later that same morning, Mr. Pruitt ordered the E.P.A. regulations scrapped, telling the company it could proceed with permitting. And like that, the mine was back in play.
Northern Dynasty Minerals originally proposed detonating millions of pounds of explosives to open a pit the size of Seattle, which would make Pebble Mine the largest manufactured hole in the world. This time around, the company speaks of a smaller mine. But once drilling begins, permits are easily amended. What mine in the history of the world has ever left gold in the ground? The company also proposes that the mine’s toxic wastewater be kept in a reservoir protected by an earthen dam — in one of North America’s most active earthquake zones.
All this bodes ill for salmon. In the continental United States, Atlantic salmon, once teeming in New England and Canada, have all but disappeared, and are now considered an endangered species. In 2015 fish biologists went into a tizzy after a mere handful of salmon set up nests in the Connecticut River.
On the West Coast, the Columbia River, known for its king salmon, and the Snake River in Idaho — where in the 19th century, salmon were so copious that locals had to beat them off with a stick before their horses would cross — have lost wild salmon because of dams and agricultural development. In the Puget Sound and in the San Francisco Bay, the same thing has happened.
Outside the United States the picture is no less bleak. That water mill that van Gogh painted so beautifully? One of the reasons the Netherlands lost its salmon. The trendy Canal S.-Martin in Paris? It was once the Ourcq River, a tributary of the Marne River — which, like the Seine, hosted abundant salmon runs. Power plants in Denmark and fish farms in Norway have disrupted wild stocks. In Scotland, Ireland, Canada — the list continues.
Alaska has remained the exception. Written into our state Constitution is a mandate to maintain a sustainable fishery, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has done well by it. We have outlawed fish farms and closely monitor escapement — the number of fish that make it back to their home streams to spawn. This conservative approach has led to bumper salmon runs in Bristol Bay, where, since 1884, the total cumulative catch in the area has been two billion fish. It took 95 years to catch the first billion, and just 38 years to catch the second. This year was record-breaking for sockeye returns.
Meanwhile, fishing and tourism combine to sustain some 14,000 jobs in the area. Northern Dynasty says Pebble Mine will create 1,000. If making America great again means bringing back jobs, then Bristol Bay is already doing just fine.
In Alaska, salmon give us food and work. But they also give us something harder to quantify. We welcome the fish each summer as they build their nests at headwaters. We breathe in their scent as they decay along the riverbanks. They permeate our lives. As they say on the island, the fish are in the trees.
My daughters, girls built of salmon.
Brendan Jones is a commercial fisherman and the author of the novel “The Alaskan Laundry.”
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A version of this op-ed appears in print on November 26, 2017, on Page SR10 of the New York edition with the headline: A Gold Rush in Salmon Country. Today's Paper|Subscribe