As the Environmental Protection Agency seeks public comment on its proposal to blockade the Pebble mine and permanently protect the Bristol Bay watershed, the salmon are speaking out simply by showing off. About 69.7 million sockeye returned to the bay this summer. This exceeds the record run of 67.7 million fish that returned last year, making it the largest sockeye run ever documented in Bristol Bay.
Unsurprisingly, this year’s phenomenal run also led to record harvest figures. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game reported last week that as of July 11, commercial fishermen had caught approximately 46.6 million sockeye salmon. It’s by far the biggest harvest since commercial fishing began in the area in 1883, and the season isn’t even over yet. The ADFG predicts that around 75 million sockeye could return to Bristol Bay before all is said and done, and that number could rise to 90 million, according to Alaska Public Media.
It’s almost as if the fish are trying to tell us something. It may be that building the world’s largest surface mine at the source of the world’s most productive salmon ecosystem is a terrible idea.
Fight a decades-long battle against the Cobble Mine
On May 25, the EPA released its revised proposed determination for the Pebble Mine project under section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act. After extensive study, the agency found that the release of fill material that would be required to mine the cobble bed ‘could cause unacceptable adverse effects on salmon fishing grounds in the Bristol Bay catchment’. .
The federal agency’s proposed ruling would effectively block the proposed copper-molybdenum-gold mine by prohibiting the dumping of any dredged or fill material within the Pebble Mine site footprint, which has been updated to last seen in 2020. This includes the South and North Forks of the Koktuli, as well as Upper Talarik Creek, which are the final spawning destinations for millions of salmon that return to Bristol Bay each summer.
“Bristol Bay supports one of the most important salmon fisheries in the world,” EPA Regional Administrator Casey Sixkiller said in May. “EPA is committed to following science, the law, and a transparent public process to determine what is necessary to ensure that this irreplaceable and invaluable resource is protected for current and future generations.”
The EPA came to a similar conclusion in 2014, when it released its initial assessment of the potential negative impacts that large-scale mining would have on the watershed. Under the Obama administration, the federal agency used the same 404(c) protections to effectively shut down the project.
Five years later, however, under the Trump administration, the EPA withdrew its proposed determination and reopened the application process for Pebble. This led Trout Unlimited to take legal action against the agency.
In November 2020, while TU’s lawsuit was still ongoing, the Army Corps of Engineers denied Northern Dynasty’s application to develop the proposed surface mine. Then, in October 2021, the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska ruled in favor of wild salmon and reversed the 2019 EPA ruling.
As we reported last fall, the double was a blow to the Pebble Mine project, which a coalition of fishermen and conservationists have been battling for decades. But without permanent protections under section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act, the politically charged back and forth we’ve seen could continue long into the future.
Sockeye salmon fishing isn’t the only thing that’s been on fire this summer
The EPA’s May 25 announcement opened a public comment period that was scheduled to last until July 5, but the federal agency announced on July 1 that it would extend that comment period by a full two months until to September 6. Comments can be submitted by mail. or by email, but the agency recommends using the federal eRulemaking portal.
The EPA didn’t give a reason for extending the comment period, but in doing so it did give the ecosystem a voice. And if two consecutive years of record salmon runs aren’t enough to show Pebble supporters the value of permanently protecting Bristol Bay, they have a more obvious clue to pack their things and get through the 4th of July weekend. .
That weekend, as commercial fishing fleets in Bristol Bay intercepted the millions of salmon that poured in and sport fishermen tossed fish that swam higher into the catchment, a wildfire ripped through the Pebble supply camp.
Although no one was injured, Mike Heatwole, spokesman for the Pebble Limited Partnership, told reporters the damage from the fire had resulted in a “near total loss” of camp supplies. This included everything from tools, wooden pallets and canvas tents to metal tent frames, which Heatwole says essentially melted and fell apart.
Meanwhile, an unlikely alliance of fly-fishing guides, gillnets, Alaskan natives and subsistence fishermen have heard of the fire in their respective corners of the state. And while it might be a stretch to read too far into these things, some saw the wildfire as a not-so-subtle suggestion from Mother Nature herself.