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Open Collection of Student Writing (OCSW)

Bristol Bay

Bristol Bay, Alaska has the largest natural wild sockeye salmon run in the world, and it is at risk of having one of the largest open pit mines in the world opened up right next to it. I believe that this is the most pressing issue in American politics today and without question the biggest most controversial topic in Alaska. Should we open up a mine to gather precious metals that we need even if it will only last 75 years? Should we risk destroying a sustainable fishery that could last forever and has lasted the test of time up to this point?

Bristol Bay is the eastern-most arm of the Bering Sea, in Southwest Alaska. A number of rivers flow into the bay, including the Cinder, Egegik, Igushik, Kvichak, Meshik, Nushagak, Naknek, Togiak, and Ugashik. Bristol Bay produces half of the world’s wild sockeye salmon, averaging 40 million salmon a year. Bristol Bay dwarfs any other sockeye run in the world, but sockeye is just one of five salmon species. The region produces roughly one-third of all salmon caught annually in Alaska.

To give you a better picture of Bristle Bay and where pebble mine would be, let’s talk about geography for a minute. there are not roads connecting anything, the year-round population is about 1000 residents across 3 towns, King Salmon, Naknek, and South Naknek. It is 300 miles by air to the nearest city with a good hospital. Economically there is not much going on in Bristle Bay, most of the year.

In the summer there are thousands of fishermen, to be exact, “8,247 commercial fishman” (wink, 2018) in 2017 showed up to fish from the beginning of June to mid-August. Birstall Bay’s wild salmon fishery is not like anything else on the planet, most of the fishing takes place in a 4 to 5-week period of time from the end June to the middle of August with the Hight of fishing being in July. Commercial fishing captains in Bristol Bay try to make about $100,000 in this short time window. Within this 4 to 5-week time period, 75% of a boat’s profits are caught within a 10-day period. So, if you followed my train of thought, there is an absurd amount of money being made in a very short amount of time. It is not uncommon to hear about guns being pulled out and boats ramming each other like the wild west. The Alaska department of Fish and Game try’s their best to enforce the fishing regulations buy flying overhead in planes and helicopters. These fishing regulations come with a heavy penalty if you screw up like losing your fishing permit that has a market value of $133,333, if you fish over a GPS boundary line in the ocean where it’s illegal to fish, or if you start to fish too early by as little as five minutes.

Why would anyone ever want to risk destroying an ecosystem and economy, this valuable? Many people would risk destroying Bristol Bay’s wild salmon run because there is one of the largest deposits of copper in the world, just upstream of Bristol Bay where the salmon are harvested. Whether we like to admit it or not we need precious metals if we want to live in a modern world with things like iPhones, Smart cars, and birth protection like IUD’s. The truth is that mining is a necessary evil in our world today, unless we want to go back to living like caveman. There are many benefits to Alaska, the United States, and the world if Pebble Mine opens, and is able to extract high quantity of copper.

Putting in an open pit mine upstream of Bristol Bay gets complicated and emotional for most. We need to break this issue down into bite size pieces to understand the issue better. If the mine is built, it is not going to instantly destroy the commercial fishing industry in Bristol Bay. This is why I keep using words like risk instead of ruin. If the mine operates perfectly and nothing ever goes wrong, there’s a possibility that both of these massive economical boosters for the area could be operating simultaneously, both boosting the economy. Environmentalists and fisherman are scared of Pebble opening because there is a chance that if something goes wrong at the mine, say there is an earthquake that causes a chemical spill, it could completely destroy this water shed and fishery forever.

The reason the mine poses a risk is that when you mine there’s only a certain percent of the rock that actually holds the precious metal that you are specifically looking for. To get the metal you are looking for it has to go through a process of refining. First, you need to pull it out of the ground. Second, you need to run it through some pretty significant machinery to breakdown the rock into small pieces. In the last step of refining you need use heavy chemicals to separate the regular rock and the mineral that you’re targeting, so that you can get as much of the specific precious metal that the mine is going sell. Because of modern EPA regulations mines are not allowed to do this anymore, but for example one hundred years ago when Juneau was going through a mining boom they used to use mercury to separate the gold from the rest of the rock and they would just leave mercury all over the place. Now that same mercury that was used in 1910 is still damaging the ecosystems and beaches around Juneau today and we can’t stir it up or we would risk leeching that mercury back into the environment.

This refining process makes byproducts, manly sand but also the leftover chemicals that were used. The byproducts or waist are stored in what’s called a tailings pond. If the tailings pond wore to Leak or the damn holding back this pond back where to break, all of that toxic water and sand that was created would rush downstream into the watershed that is creating this massive fishing industry in Bristol Bay. If Pebble operates perfectly then It could be fine but the risk of something going wrong with the tailings pond would permanently destroyed the self-sustaining fishery that is roughly 40 miles away.

This seems like a very unnecessary risk, because the mine is only projected to be operating for the next 50 years and that’s including the 5 years It would take to build it. Bristol Bay has been producing this natural wild run of salmon as long as humans have recorded history. There is a distinct possibility that managed correctly Bristol Bay could continue to produce this sustainable food source and natural extraction economy indefinitely into the future.

Bristol Bay has an amazing economic impact on Alaska and the United states that could last forever and get better with time. “The Bristol Bay salmon fishery directly employed an estimated 14,765 workers in seasonal jobs per year during the 2013-2017 study period. Including multiplier effects, the fishery generated a total of 12,537 average jobs per year. The fishery created an estimated $658 million of labor income and $1.23 billion in economic output on average during the study period.” (wink, 2018) These jobs, and this economy would disappear if the fishing stopped.

If Pebble Mine does open, “During the Construction Phase, Alaska will enjoy an increase of $400 million in its average annual gross state production. As mine production ramps up during the IPP, the annual contribution of the Pebble Mine to the Alaskan economy will more than triple: rising to over $1.1 billion under the IHS metal price forecast scenario; $1.4 billion under the CRU metal price forecast scenario. Most of that contribution will be derived from the value of the mineral concentrates produced by the mine.” (Bonakdarpour, 2013)

My fear, other than the environment risks in all this economic growth is that there is not going to be much money that stays in Alaska. I know from my own personal experience in Juneau, Alaska that the mine workers from Kensington and Greens Creek, two underground hard rock gold mines, work two weeks on, one week off. Most of the miners that work just outside of Juneau, just fly home to Montana or Arizona after their two-week shift. When miners, are at work they stay in big housing units like hotels that are built and owned by the mine. There is not even a road out of these two mine sites to any kind of town, or anywhere they can even spend money. The mine supplies all their food while they are in camp/at work. Being that these mines are so isolated, just like Pebble Mine would be. I don’t see were the miners will impact very much of the Alaska economy. The main economy boosters for Alaska will be the construction companies that get contracted out to help build the mine and I think that’s it.

The solution to managing the risk that Bristol Bay is facing because of Pebble Mine is to first pay attention to politics and the legislation that is being passed on state and national levels. Second, we need to promote and educate the rest the United States outside of Alaska about the benefits of wild salmon. If people are as educated about salmon as the average Alaskan citizen is, people would care much more about this issue. Right now, Pebble mine does not have all of the permits that it needs from the EPA to legally operate but is very quickly on the way to getting them.

In conclusion, Bristol Bay is a special place, with special communities, that are pumping money into the local economy from commercial fishing. We need mining in this world whether we like it or not to enjoy the life we have, but if a tailings pond got released, it would be the end to fishing in Bristol Bay. Now more than ever we need to be more educated on what’s going on in our world so that one of earth’s most magnificence displays of life, that people rely on to make a living, continues to sustainably reproduce itself into the future forever.

Works cited

Wink, Andy. “Economic Benefits of the Bristol Bay Salmon Industry.” Economic Benefits of the Bristol Bay Salmon Industry, Bristol Bay Native Corporation , July 2018, www.pebblescience.org/pdfs/EconomicBenefitsofBristolBaySalmon-July-2018.pdf.

Bonakdarpour, Mohsen. The Economic and Employment Contributions of a Conceptual Pebble Mine to the Alaska and United States Economies. May 2013, www.northerndynastyminerals.com/site/assets/files/4333/study.pdf.

 

 

 

 

 

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