Over the summer, tens of millions of wild salmon return from long voyages in the Pacific Ocean and swim back to their natal rivers, located in places like Southwest Alaska’s pristine Bristol Bay watershed, an area roughly the size of Ohio. Although less well known than their Yukon or Copper River cousins, Bristol Bay King and Sockeye salmon are just as delicious and many wind up on dinner plates in restaurants, fish markets and grocery stores across the country.
With their ruby-colored flesh, scarlet red scales and pale green heads, the torpedo-shaped fish are w orks of art — both for the eye and the palate. Fortunately, unlike many places in the Lower 48, Bristol Bay supports the world’s largest Sockeye salmon run and a healthy and sustainable fishery. It’s become evermore important as salmon stocks dwindle on the West Coast of the United States.
This summer, for the second year in a row, federal fishery managers have banned commercial salmon fishing in California waters while severely cutting back on it off the coast of Oregon. A toxic recipe of urbanization, ocean warming, dams, culverts, fishery mismanagement, and pollution, particularly from agricultural run-off, has resulted in degraded habitat, making it hard for Pacific salmon to survive. Bristol Bay stands alone as one of the last p laces on Earth where wild salmon still thrive.
But while the fish are bountiful, all is not well in Bristol Bay. The salmon fishery and the families it supports face a looming threat from industrialscale hard rock mining. A consortium of mining companies, led by Londonbased Anglo American, wants to open what would be one of the world’s largest open-pit mines in the very place where the salmon spawn. Ironically, an enormous storehouse of gold, copper and molybdenum lies buried under the headwaters of the Nushagak and Kvichak Rivers, the biggest producers of Bristol Bay salmon. In recent years, the mining companies have spent millions of dollars exploring the geochemistry, hydrology, and other aspects of what’s come to be known as the Pebble deposit. Mining executives stated recently that they are just months away from applying for state and federal p ermits to develop the mine.
The prospect of a massive mine in their backyard has stirred concern among the commercial, sport and subsistence fishermen whose livelihoods depend on Bristol Bay salmon. They fear a spill of mine waste or some other industrial accident at Pebble could destroy a wild salmon run that’s worth hundreds of millions of dollars and provides j obs and sustenance to thousands of people.
It’s not just fisherman and environmentalists who worry about the future of Bristol Bay. A number of prominent West Coast chefs, including Alice Waters of Berkley, Calif.’s Chez Panisse restaurant, h ave become outspoken about Bristol Bay.
“Wild salmon is without a doubt one of nature’s perfect foods. Anyone sitting down to their table to enjoy a perfect fillet of Bristol Bay sockeye salmon should pause and feel thankful for the pure A laska rivers that spawned it,” said Waters.
In addition to giving thanks, Paul Johnson thinks consumers should actively help preserve Bristol Bay salmon by voting with their fork. For the San Francisco fish wholesaler and author of “Fish Forever: The Definitive Guide to Understanding, Selecting, and Preparing Healthy, Delicious, and Environmentally Sustainable Seafood,” voting with one’s fork means insisting that restaurants and r etail outlets carry Bristol Bay salmon.
“It’s our moral obligation to protect these fish and that means supporting this sustainable fishery by choosing Bristol Bay salmon,” said Johnson.
“If we allow this Pebble mine to go in, the same thing that happened to us down here in California is going to happen in Alaska. The salmon won’t s urvive.” A group of Seattle chefs has also recently weighed in. The board of Seattle Chefs Collaborative, a non-profit that works with chefs and others to foster a sustainable food supply, recently voted unanimously to support the efforts of Trout Unlimited to protect Bristol Bay’s salmon. Trout Unlimited, a coldwater fisheries protection group, is helping raise awareness about the risks of the P ebble mine project and to protect Bristol Bay.
“We want to empower consumers to know that they can heavily influence what ends up happening to Bristol Bay. Whether it’s eating Bristol Bay wild salmon or writing a letter to Gov. Sarah Palin and letting her know that the Pebble mine should not be developed, everyone can play a part” said Elizabeth Dubovsky, an organizer with Trout Unlimited in Juneau.