At the peak of the salmon season, a fleet of fishing boats, many from Seattle, zip across the fertile waters of Bristol Bay, Alaska, in a mad dash to capture a share of the wild sockeye run.
This July, among the raucous competition to net and sell tons of fish, Port of Seattle Commissioner Peter Steinbrueck joined his son and brother aboard a 32-foot boat for the unique experience of spending weeks as a full-time fisher in the world’s most abundant natural sockeye estuary.
“It’s hard work. I’ll tell you that. You’re putting the net in the water, you’re pulling it out, you’re getting the fish out of the net, and you’re tossing the fish into the bag, then you start it all again,” Steinbrueck said.
About half the wild sockeye sold in the world comes from Bristol Bay, producing hundreds of millions in sales and generating 14,000 jobs, enriching Washington and Alaska. Washington sends more than 200 fishing boats to Alaska for commercial fishing each year. The annual labor earnings for Puget Sound alone from Alaskan seafood tops $1.3 billion, according to a 2015 study.
In every sense, this fishery is among Seattle’s economic engines. Now it is imperiled.
Bristol Bay’s sockeye-packed waters are at risk from the proposed Pebble Mine, which would be one of the world’s largest man-made mining excavations. The Pebble Partnership seeks to build an immense, 8,000-acre open-pit gold and copper mine near the headwaters of two rivers that feed Bristol Bay — the entrance to the spawning grounds of the colossal salmon run.
In July, the Environmental Protection Agency scrapped restrictions the agency had placed on Bristol Bay development in 2014. Former EPA head Scott Pruitt set this reversal in motion before he resigned last year in scandal. This reckless decision shows a brazen disregard for the habitat and the people who make their living from it. It’s clear, from his administration’s record, that President Donald Trump will not do the right thing and reverse course.
The potential consequences could be cataclysmic for Bristol Bay’s fishery.
The mine’s toxic byproducts require digging massive retention pits and building huge dams. The sheer volume of waste generated by Pebble Mine — and the risk of a spill — would have far broader impacts than even the disastrous failure five years ago at the Mount Polley mine in British Columbia. Earlier this year, an analysis for The Nature Conservancy found that nearly 600 miles of salmon-friendly streams would be at risk from a major toxic spill from Pebble Mine.
Even if such an outcome was avoided, the mine would irrevocably lay waste to thousands of acres of wetlands and other pristine areas of Alaska’s wilderness.
Between the permitting process and an inevitable court challenge, the project will face significant hurdles before it can move forward. Opposition in Washington state, Alaska and elsewhere is already in motion. The Port of Seattle unanimously approved a resolution against Pebble Mine, and U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, a longtime critic of the mining proposal, has called the EPA’s decision “a foolish and shortsighted mistake.”
The rest of Washington’s congressional delegation and Alaska’s elected leaders should follow suit. What happens in Alaska has an undeniable impact on Puget Sound. And the risk to the world’s premier salmon run is unacceptable.
Correction: An earlier version of this editorial, published Aug. 22, 2019 and corrected Sept. 11, 2019, incorrectly stated that the company proposing Pebble Mine had been responsible for the Mount Polley mine spill.