After competing at the Hurley Pro Trestles in Southern California, 3x World Surfing Champion Mick Fanning left his surfboards behind and boarded a TransNorthern 19 Passenger Super DC-3 plane from Anchorage to Bristol Bay in Alaska’s South West. This time his quest was not to catch an icy wave but rather the allure of a trophy-sized Rainbow Trout.
The new global ambassador for conservation company Wild Ark, joined founder Mark Hutchinson on an educational expedition to one of the wildest, most remote areas of Alaska and arguably the world. The team was to learn how the fishery, with the richest supply of wild Sockeye salmon left in the world, is under threat from a proposed open pit gold and copper mine known as Pebble Mine.
Seventy-four thousand square km of pristine Alaskan wilderness, most of which is made up of water, is known as Bristol Bay.
The area boasts major river systems, such as the Nushagak, the NakNek, the Kvichak and the Mulchatna, which see the return of millions of salmon a year, as well as literally thousands of smaller rivers, streams and lakes. These systems braid their way across the spongy tundra dotted with smaller lakes and ponds that mirror the sky. These waterways are thriving with fish and wildlife.
It is this pristine environment that allows for some 50 – 60 million sockeye salmon to return to Bristol Bay each year. Along with the millions of sockeye, huge numbers of chinook, pink, coho and chum salmon return as well. In turn, all these salmon are followed by trophy rainbow trout, grayling, and dolly varden char, which feed on the eggs they deposit and as those salmon spawn and die, the flesh of the salmon themselves. These predatory fish are joined by bears, wolves and bald eagles who heavily depend on this colossal fishery for food as well. In the patches of forest and along the tundra you can also find herds of caribou and moose feeding on the lush vegetation.
“This is the Serengeti of the Alaskan wilderness,” says our host Brian Kraft of Alaska Sportsman’s Lodge, on the savebristolbay.org website. “Here snow fed streams flow crystal clear from the mountains, through rolling tundra and into the sea. Anglers from around the world see this as the pinnacle of fishing opportunities. There are not many, if any, places like this left in the world.”
Flying over the vast Alaskan tundra is an extraordinary experience. There are no roads or highways, and floatplanes or jet boats are the most common mode of transport. Piling into a six-person float plane each day and flying out to remote rivers and creeks, gives you perspective on just how wild and pristine this area has remained.
“I‘m completely in awe of this place and the animals that inhabit the Bristol Bay watershed,” Fanning said. “I‘m also baffled that parts of the state are constantly under threat of open pit mining. The mining companies refer to the land in Alaska‘s southwest as “desolate“. Well… after camping, hiking, fishing and flying over this zone I can tell you it is the opposite of desolate. This place is alive!”
After spending a little time here, it becomes abundantly clear that salmon drives everything in this ecosystem.
Incredibly, salmon return to spawn and then die in the same waters where they hatched from eggs years earlier. Juvenile sockeye salmon spend a year in fresh water before heading out to sea to feed and grow into adults and then return to their water body of birth to complete this ancient, cycle.
Salmon are the true indicator of environmental health, clean water and clean habitat and also serve as source of culture, food, income and employment for the region’s local residents – a majority of whom are Alaska Natives who can trace their history in this region back 10,000 years.
“Salmon are a great source of pride for Alaskans, but there is a lot of responsibility that goes with that pride,” warns Tim Bristol of Salmon State Alaska, an organization that promotes good law policy and practices to ensure that Alaska remains the home of the greatest wild salmon fishery in the world.
“You can destroy a salmon run by wiping out its habitat or not managing a harvest. There are so many examples of failure along North America’s West Coast; Alaska and Bristol Bay especially, is the last stand for wild salmon.”
Bristol believes that the Bristol Bay ecosystem is world class example of good resource management by both the people who have lived there for thousands of years and the people who have since joined them.
The hard work and dedication from these people has held off the Pebble Mine from building North America’s, and possibly the world’s largest open pit mine, at the headwaters of two major drainages into Bristol Bay.
After ten years of hard work by a broad section of Alaskans, who were eventually joined by people from around the world, they have continued on the path of sustainability and good stewardship, putting future generations ahead of short-term financial gains.
However, Pebble Mine continues to lobby for what is estimated as a $400 billion mineral mining opportunity and therefore the threat remains very much alive.
The threats from open pit mining are significant, primarily the sheer size and threat of acid mine waste generation is the biggest cause for concern in this highly sensitive environmental area. It is estimated that the mine will produce between 2.5 and 10.78 billion tons of waste that will have to be treated and managed forever. It would need to generate more power than the city of Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city with nearly 300,000 residents and build access roads across sensitive salmon streams.
“Basically you would be taking this wild, pristine place that serves as a salmon factory to the world and sacrificing it for one-time use mineral extractions,” Bristol says. “There is enough copper in the world, we need to do more recycling and frankly, we don’t need this gold.”
Kraft agrees, “What protects these fisheries is common sense. Just because they say it will be safe on a piece of paper, doesn’t mean it will be. It is our responsibility to ensure they don’t go and screw this up.”
Many people believe, if the salmon no longer arrive, everything in this ecosystem will die.
“Everything from the smallest insect up to brown bears would be in big trouble,” says Bristol. “Then there is the human element too, salmon are the reason people have been there for thousands of years. That’s why we have this big commercial fishing fleet, that’s why we have people going and visiting these beautiful lodges, it is because of that salmon run and damage to it can’t be mitigated. That salmon run can’t be brought back when it is gone.”
While there are a large number of communities and industries that earn a significant income from the salmon, Wild Ark, enjoyed first hand, an eco-sustainable sports fishing experience on the banks of the Kvichak River. The $1.4 billion industry, generates significant income for Alaska, with Bristol Bay supporting close to 1000 jobs that account for $27 million in wages (2007 figures). It is a wonderful example of how humans can live in harmony with the wilderness.
“We enjoyed catch-and-release fly-fishing for rainbow trout, we saw wild bears feeding on the spawning sockeye salmon, spotted moose trotting through the tundra from our plane and more. There is no guarantee that mining in this area wouldn‘t have a negative impact on the waterways disrupting the salmon run and causing a massive collapse to the Alaskan and global ecosystem,” Fanning said. “It is definitely not a risk worth taking.”
It is clear from the Wild Ark expedition experience, that the mine’s economic potential does not outway the risk to this ecosystem.
“As the Alaskan’s will tell you, the ones who have lived there forever, ‘you can’t eat gold.’”