Southeast Alaska is experiencing one of the most abundant salmon runs the state has ever seen in a place called Bristol Bay – the largest and most productive salmon fishery in the world. While the Bristol Bay salmon run is an annual spectacle and the fish have returned in record numbers in recent years, there has never been a year like this. According to the Alaska Department of Game and Fish, which keeps total fish counts during the summer spawning season, the 2022 Bristol Bay salmon run has already eclipsed 72 million individual fish, and records will continue to be broken daily for the portion remainder of the season.
Bristol Bay is home to some of the best remaining salmon habitat in the world and provides nearly half of the global supply of wild-caught salmon. It is also the site of a protracted environmental saga over the proposed Pebble Mine, which seeks to extract significant deposits of gold, copper and molybdenum from a large area of wild country that lies above the headwaters of the bay.
If ever built, the Pebble Mine would be one of the largest open pit mining operations in the world at approximately two miles long and 1,700 feet deep. Opponents say it would irreversibly change Bristol Bay’s environment, severely degrading the world’s last best salmon habitat and robbing the region of billions of dollars in commercial and recreational fishing revenue.
The battle to protect Bristol Bay from the ill effects of the Pebble Mine has been raging since 2005 – and it finally seems to be reaching the finish line. The United States Environmental Protection Agency is weighing a measure that could provide lasting protection for the Bristol Bay watershed for the foreseeable future. Here’s the story of the fight against pebble mining—and why all outdoorsmen should care about the latest development.
The EPA has tried to protect the bay before
The EPA first proposed protections for Bristol Bay in 2014 during the Obama administration. In response to a 2010 petition filed by various local tribes at the end of a multiyear assessment of the Pebble Mine’s potential negative impacts on the region, the agency ruled that a rarely used provision of the federal Clean Water Act recognized . as section 404(c) should apply in Bristol Bay.
According to the EPA, Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act would prohibit the discharge of mine-related waste into Bristol Bay waterways deemed navigable and worthy of protection under the Widely Impacted Waters of the U.S. Rule (WOTUS). Without the ability to offload excavation or fill material into these WOTUS-protected streams and rivers, the current Pebble Mine plan would be dead on arrival. When the EPA invoked the Clean Water Act, opponents of the mine celebrated — perhaps prematurely.
Northern Dynasty Minerals, the Canadian conglomerate that owns the rights to develop Pebble Mine, was quietly preparing to play the long game. The company requested and was granted an internal investigation of the EPA’s environmental assessment process that led to the proposed protections for Bristol Bay. When that investigation failed to bear fruit, Northern Dynasty publicly denounced the results, then proceeded to file lawsuit after lawsuit against the agency in hopes of blocking Clean Water Act protections entirely. These lawsuits thwarted the EPA’s goals throughout the duration of the Obama administration and into the Trump years.
Then, in 2019, during an infamous closed-door meeting between Northern Dynasty CEO Tom Collier and President Donald Trump’s EPA chief Scott Pruitt, a troubling new deal materialized. EPA would settle its lawsuits with Northern Dynasty by throwing 404(c) protections out the window altogether. The permitting process for the pebble mine was infused with new life, and mine opponents were suddenly on the defensive.
A Coalition of Conservatives is mobilized
Tia Shoemaker is a lifelong Alaskan who grew up on a 40-acre preserve within the Becharof National Wildlife Refuge, a vast wilderness that stretches east of Bristol Bay. Her family has owned and operated Grizzly Skins of Alaska Inc., a hunting and fishing guide service, since 1983. Shoemaker takes clients to the federally designated Becharof Wilderness in pursuit of all that the game-rich Alaska Peninsula has to offer. has to offer—from brown bears, moose, and caribou to spawning salmon, Dolly Varden, and giant rainbow trout. She says the pebble mine proposal has been hanging over her family’s head like a storm cloud for more than twenty years. “In 2014, we were all thinking, this will be it. We’re finally going to see the end of this thing,” says Shoemaker Field & Stream. “And then for him to come back with just a vengeance was terrifying.”
When Pebble reared its head again in 2019, conservatives quickly mobilized. Trout Unlimited (TU) sued the EPA in the wake of Pruitt’s decision to roll back Clean Water Act protections, alleging that the agency ignored sound science and prioritized the Pebble Mine’s progress over the interests of the fishing industry. the multi-billion dollar Bristol Bay salmon. Shortly after the lawsuit against the EPA was filed, TU was joined in its opposition by a chorus of media voices, including conservative talk show host Tucker Carlson, who aired his grievances with Pebble Mine during a keynote address on his popular Fox News TV show. Carlson, an avid fly fisherman, also gave advertising space to Theodore Roosevelt’s Conservation Partnership, which used valuable airtime to denounce the Pebble Mine. In subsequent episodes of his show, he interviewed a variety of Pebble Mine opponents from Johnny Morris of Bass Pro Shops to local Bristol Bay business owner Brian Kraft. Some would later speculate that Carlson’s anti-Pebble broadcasts fell on the ears of one of his biggest fans: President Donald Trump.
About a month before Carlson’s first Pebble Mine segment aired, the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., added his voice to the fray. “As a sportsman who has spent a lot of time in the area, I agree 100 percent [that President Trump should block Pebble Mine]”, he wrote on Twitter. “The waters of Bristol Bay and the surrounding fisheries are too unique and fragile to risk.”
In September 2020, Northern Dynasty CEO Tom Collier was secretly recorded by anti-Pebble activists who were secretly posing as potential mining investors. In subsequently released audio, Collier and a colleague can be heard bragging about their company’s political clout and admitting that their proposed mining operation would stretch far beyond the publicly stated timeline of just 20 years.
“It took the wind out of their sails,” says Shoemaker. “It proved that all the wild things they’ve mentioned over the years – from wanting to blow up part of Lake Iliamna to accommodate barge traffic at their mine to replacing the fishery they could eventually destroy with salmon raised on a farm – you can bet they’re still thinking about all these things, whether they’re on leave or not.”
In the wake of the groundbreaking bands, support for the Pebble eroded even further. Collier resigned as CEO of Northern Dynasty, Trump’s Army Corps of Engineers denied the mine a long-sought permit in November 2020, and Pebble’s opponents celebrated another victory in September 2021 when TU won its lawsuit against the EPA.
Is permanent protection possible?
Fast forward to the summer of 2022. With sockeye salmon rushing back into Bristol Bay’s streams and rivers, the EPA under the Biden administration just extended a public comment period on a proposal that could revive the Act’s 404(c) protections. Clean Water for Bristol Bay and Pebble Mine veto.
Read more: Chinook salmon return to California’s McCloud River after 80-year absence
According to Tia Shoemaker, now is the time to act if you want to see Bristol Bay’s wild salmon runs continue on the Alaskan landscape forever. “The salmon run in Bristol Bay is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced,” she says. “The feeling of being on the ground when they’re super chromed and they’re wading in those little streams, and the bears are fishing right next to you, and they’re just as happy as you are, and everybody’s ignoring everybody, just trying to catching their fill…It’s magic. Everything relies on the salmon run, but once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”
You can submit a comment on Clean Water Act protections for vulnerable parts of the Bristol Bay watershed here. The deadline to add your voice to EPA’s public comment record is September 6, 2022.