Protection needed for the Bristol Bay salmon fishery

Commentary By Dr. Alan Gross

For The Cordova Times

Bristol Bay is an incredibly special and unique place. It is home to one of the last great wild salmon runs on Earth. It is the source of well more than 50 percent of the world’s wild-caught sockeye salmon. The world and Alaska have seen a disturbing decline in our wild salmon runs, especially king salmon, but Bristol Bay stands out as remaining healthy and strong. The source of this strength is the unspoiled condition of the Bristol Bay watershed, and we have to do everything we can to keep it that way.

I started gillnetting in Bristol Bay in 1984 with Jim Beaton, chairman of the Alaska State Board of Fish and my captain. By then, I had already trolled, purse seined and long lined all over Southeast and the Gulf of Alaska, and had long lined off the northern shore of Norway for four months in the winter during the year when I’d taken a year off after high school. Jim was a legend—he loved fishing and he loved Alaska. More than that, he loved to talk, and those were some of my best days fishing. I continue to gillnet in Southeast Alaska today. My four children have also commercial fished for at least five years each, including in Bristol Bay, and I am proud to say they learned hard work by fishing and loved it, too. My mom was the first executive director of the United Fishermen of Alaska. My father, when he was just 25 years old, argued a case in the U.S. Supreme Court and won, banning fish traps from the mouths of Alaska rivers — traps that were owned by big Seattle-based companies, thus controlling the fisheries. This led to the successful growth of the independent Alaska fisherman.

I know mining too. I was born and raised in Juneau, which, as much as it is our capital, is a mining town. As a kid, I panned and sluiced for gold, and explored the closed off mine shafts of the Alaska Juneau Mine with friends and flashlights and chalk, so as not to not get lost in the shafts. We love gold in Juneau, and gold has been great for the town. Currently, we have the Greens Creek and Kensington mines near Juneau, which have been good for both jobs and revenues to the area. Nearby, our fisheries (primarily hatchery-based) have also been doing very well. So yes, it is very possible to have mining and fishing coexist. And there are many other mines in Alaska that have been good for our economy without degrading the environment. But risk and rewards have to be carefully balanced, and when considering the potential reward to Alaskans by development of the Pebble Mine, I believe the risk is far too great to proceed. As we’ve seen with the Mount Polley disaster and elsewhere, mining doesn’t always end well. And more than 15,000 people depend on the Bristol Bay fishery for their livelihood. As Alaskans weigh in and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers considers the Pebble Project, I urge them to consider the potential fully developed scenario of mining in this region, rather than the small footprint that the developers submitted. Given that this smaller scenario would leave the vast majority of recoverable ore in the ground, it is naïve and unrealistic to assume that the submitted plan accurately reflects the ultimate full scope of the mine. The gold and copper at the Pebble site can remain tucked away, but our salmon are already subjected to major challenges with our changing climate. I believe we should put the health of this priceless fishery first, rather than adding the additional challenge of a large mining district just upstream. In this case the fish should, and must, come first.

Al Gross, M.D., M.P.H., is an orthopedic surgeon. Born and raised in Juneau, he has also lived in Petersburg and Anchorage. He is currently exploring an independent run for U.S. Senate.