The Bristol Bay watershed in southwest Alaska, which supports the world's greatest wild salmon fishery, is under threat. A Pebble mining gold project is putting at risk an area that runs 30 to 50 million fish per year.
But the voices of indigenous communities fighting against it got an echo at the recent International Union for The Conservation of Nation World Conservation Congress in Honolulu, Hawaii.
At the end of the summit, the IUCN decided to release a motion in support to the protection of the bay and of the indigenous communities living there.
The motion is “recognizing that the Bristol Bay watershed has sustained Indigenous Peoples in Alaska for millennia (...) calls on the Director General, Commissions and Members to support, as appropriate, through administrative, technical, scientific, and financial assistance, the local Indigenous Peoples, tribes, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) of Bristol Bay working to prevent large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed including, in particular, the proposed Pebble Mine.”
The motion noted “the Bristol Bay watershed is an unparalleled ecological and economic resource of global significance, supporting the world’s largest salmon fishery, sport and subsistence fishing and hunting and tourism.”
The text highlights that “salmon are also the linchpin of the region’s economy, supporting a $1.5 billion annual commercial fishery that employs 14,000 full and part-time workers and supplies half of the world’s sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka).”
Joel Reynolds, western director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said “IUCN exists to protect nature and indigenous rights. That is why with the motion it sent a message not only to Pebble mining but to global mining. “This is important in Alaska, a state that is kind of mining friendly”.
The state has six major producing mines and eight advanced exploration projects, according to information from the Alaska Mining Association.
Kimberly Williams, executive director of Nunamta Aulukestai, a coalition of 10 Alaska Native Village Corporations and Alaska Native Tribes, pointed out that their goal is that Alaska remain the place of salmon. “All our partners that think this matters means a world to us,” she said at the end of the Summit.
The Bay and Its People
Allanah Kurely, from the United Tribes of Bristol Bay explained that around the bay there are 35 villages without roads. “Only planes get there so people really live like thousands years ago and now are fighting to protect their ways of life.”
Bristol Bay supports 31 Alaska Native Villages and creates more than 12,000 jobs for fishermen and processors, according to information from the White House.
Pebble Mine will enable the development of North America’s largest mining district in the Bristol Bay watershed. The gold there was discovered in 1987. There has been an ongoing exploration, engineering, and environmental studies since 2002.
Motion explains pebble mining
“Bristol Bay is surrounded by two national parks, wildlife refuges and the largest state park in the U.S. In addition, the Bristol Bay watershed provides habitat for more than 29 fish species (all five species of Pacific salmon found in North America), 40 terrestrial mammal species and 190 bird species,” explains the IUCN motion.
“According to initial plans, excavating the Pebble deposit would produce 10 billion tons of mining waste, to be contained forever by tailings dams more than 700 feet tall (taller than China’s Three Gorges Dam) in a wet, porous, and seismically active Arctic region. One hundred miles of road and slurry pipelines across tundra – along with a new deep-water port in habitat critical to Cook Inlet beluga whales (designated 'Critically Endangered' on the IUCN Red List) – would need to be built. A scientific assessment by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded the mine could have ‘significant’ and even “catastrophic” effects on the region. EPA found that even in a best-case scenario – experiencing no failures – the Pebble Mine would destroy up to 94 miles (151 km) of streams; eliminate 5,350 acres (2,165 hectares) of wetlands, ponds, and lakes; and significantly impact fish populations in streams around the mine site.”