It is not often that a fish can define your life's work. Rarer still can the most powerful man on earth, the President of the United States, determine the future of that fish. President Obama must decide before his re-election campaign is over whether nearly one-third of the wild salmon consumed in the United States can continue to provide an important source of delicious and healthy protein for millions of Americans (try, for example, Grilled Salmon with Ancho Honey Porter Glaze). Or, whether an ill-conceived, open pit mine in the headwaters of Bristol Bay, Alaska, is more important
It all started for me more than 20 years ago in Alaska. I watched hundreds of deformed, hook-jawed, flesh-sloughing salmon roil along the banks of a river that I'd planned on fishing. No way was I going to allow what had contaminated the fish get on my sweet new rubber Ranger waders. So, I left, and went to the nearest library. Remember those places with books, before Wikipedia?
I learned salmon are born in freshwater streams, migrate to the ocean for several years and then return to their birth stream. How they can travel hundreds of miles on their journey home, gaining thousands of feet of elevation, subsisting only off the fat they have stored. They go through the physical transformation described above and have sex one time. One time, then die.
What started as a humbling educational experience blossomed into a career that's allowed me to help conserve the landscapes that we love to fish and hunt, while also providing food for my family. All of that, and more, is at risk in Bristol Bay. In this remote corner of southwest Alaska, more than 40 million salmon return to spawn every year. The future of this place, an area the size of Ohio where a visitor is more likely to see a caribou or bear than another person, is in the hands of President Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That is why Trout Unlimited (TU) is working with Alaska native people, recreational and commercial fishermen, hunting and angling organizations, outdoor retailers, talented chefs, jewelers, and many others to protect what is the world's largest and most important salmon fishery.
Several mining companies have proposed building the world's largest open pit mine in Bristol Bay's headwater rivers. In addition to tons of copper, gold and molybdenum, the proposed Pebble Mine would produce 10 billion tons of toxic waste and store it behind a 700 foot high earthen dam. In this seismically active region, independent scientists question whether a dam could withstand an earthquake. Recall that Anchorage was devastated by a 9.2 magnitude quake in 1964.
Fearing the impacts to wild salmon, Alaska Natives asked the Obama Administration to use its authority under the Clean Water Act to protect Bristol Bay from the Pebble Mine. TU led 500 other hunting and angling organizations to support this action. In response, the EPA in February 2011 launched a science review to evaluate the potential impacts from industrial scale development to Bristol Bay's extraordinary fish and wildlife. Importantly, the people who live closest to the mine and whose lives, literally, depend on the salmon fishery, recently formally declared their opposition to the mine.
At first glance, the Obama Administration appears confronted with the classic jobs vs. the environment conundrum. The reality is that the Pebble Mine would create between 1000-2000 annual jobs while imperiling 12000 commercial and recreational fishery-related jobs in the $600 million annual salmon fishery. And the mining jobs would disappear once the minerals are extracted. In contrast, the jobs supported by salmon will continue long past when the mine is shuttered as long as we take care of the habitat. Do the math; in Bristol Bay, protecting the environment protects jobs.
This is the wrong mine in the wrong place, and President Obama should stop it before more time and resources are wasted. Bristol Bay demonstrates that some places should be left free of industrial development because their natural resource values, and the benefits they provide to people, outstrip short-term development values.
In our faltering economy, jobs are a critical issue and stopping the Pebble Mine gives President Obama the rare opportunity to protect the environment in the name of protecting jobs and economic development.