Healthy fish crucial to Bristol Bay

Voices of Alaska

As many Alaskans know, there are some unbeatable places to work, hunt and fish throughout this state -- and in many cases not far from our back porch. As seasoned guides and lodge owners we've had the opportunity to live, work, and play in one of the state's crown jewels -- Bristol Bay. Over the years we've introduced thousands of travelers -- some Alaskans, others from Outside -- to this pristine region and the trophy sized fish of Bristol Bay's famed rivers.

Bristol Bay is on the map because of fish. For over 75 years anglers from far and wide have flocked to this area to catch hauntingly large rainbow trout and salmon in numbers found nowhere else in the world. In 1950, the region's lodge and tourism industry was born when Ray Peterson, Sonny's dad, founded Anglers Paradise lodges. By 1959 over 1,000 guests visited Peterson's famous Brooks Lodge each summer. Today nearly 65,000 recreational travelers come to Bristol Bay each year to experience world-class fishing at one of approximately 70 lodges or do-it-yourself campsites. For Alaskans this has created a flourishing economy, with sport fishing generating more than 800 jobs and $60 million in revenue each year.

Sadly, the threat of large-scale mining could soon make one of the region's most well-established economic engines a thing of the past. That's because in addition to the bountiful fish population, Bristol Bay is also home to one of the world's largest gold, copper, and molybdenum deposits. The threats of hard rock mining -- most notably, Pebble Mine -- to the fish and wildlife habitat in this region are severe.

While proponents of the mine say there is little chance of harming the fish, other experts offer some real concerns. For example, small amounts of copper above naturally occurring levels in water can significantly impact a salmon's ability to find its natal spawning stream. Pebble is much larger than all other hard rock mines in Alaska combined and estimated to produce nearly 10 billion tons of waste to be permanently stored on site in the seismically active region. Additionally, the mining industry has a poor track record when it comes to maintaining existing water quality. Today very few hard rock mines -- if any -- haven't had some sort of water quality impact in the US.

Bristol Bay's existing jobs and culture depend on healthy runs of fish. A mine the size of Pebble has never been built in North America, and certainly not in such important fish habitat. At best Pebble is an experiment -- and Alaskans can't afford to experiment with existing jobs, healthy wildlife populations, and world renowned hunting and fishing opportunities.

This week the Environmental Protection Agency released an assessment of the Bristol Bay Watershed. In it they came to the same conclusion many Alaskans have already made - the potential threats of a mine like Pebble could permanently destroy this one-of-a-kind fishery. While it's an important step in the right direction, the pursuit to protect Bristol Bay is not over. The EPA should invoke their authority through the Clean Water Act Section 404(c) to protect the watershed from future mining or large-scale development. These restrictions are rooted in well-established precedents and long-standing policies within the Clean Water Act 404 program, and would provide long-term security for the people of Bristol Bay and Alaska's economy.

Bud Hodson has been in the Alaska sportfishing business for over 32 years and is a long-time Alaskan. He owns and operates Tikchik Narrows Lodge, one of Bristol Bay's first lodges, and has been instrumental in building the strong, successful sport fishing economy in Bristol Bay. Sonny Petersen is owner and operator of Katmailand, and his family pioneered the sport fishing and tourism in Bristol Bay. In 1974 he began an air taxi operation, Katmai Air and today he spends his summers managing the three lodges and Katmai Air while spends his winters in Anchorage preparing for the next season.

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