Alaska's Waters: Under Threat Again

Salmon spawning.

If you’ve ever savored the flavor of wild Alaska salmon, there’s a very good chance that salmon came from southwestern Alaska’s Bristol Bay, where the cold, clean waters of the eastern Bering Sea generate the largest sockeye salmon run in the world.

If you’re a fan of this fish, it might come as a surprise, then, to learn that the world’s largest wild salmon runs are at serious risk.

Despite its status as a world-renowned fishing ground, Bristol Bay has recently come under threat from off-shore drilling and mining proposals.

Recently, the Bush Administration removed the bay’s off-shore drilling protections, which were put in place after the Exxon Valdez catastrophe devastated Prince William Sound.

And, as if this offshore threat weren’t enough, Bristol Bay’s salmon now face another threat in the streams where they spawn; The mining industry is currently planning the world’s largest open pit gold and copper mine onshore. This mine could introduce billions of tons of toxic waste into steams.

In the wake of Exxon Valdez

After images of oil coated birds and blackened beaches in Prince William Sound flooded the nation’s television screens some 20 years ago, the federal government wisely closed off Alaska’s most sensitive waters to future oil drilling, including Bristol Bay.

National and state leaders agreed that allowing oil and gas development in Bristol Bay would be too risky.

A presidential moratorium was put in place by Bush’s father, George H. W. Bush in 1990. President Bill Clinton extended those protections.

Since that time, Bristol Bay has continued to thrive as one of the world's most productive marine ecosystems. The region’s rich natural resources that have sustained native Alaskans for centuries remain a mainstay of subsistence, culture and traditions as well as the local economy.

Million-dollar resource meets big-time threat

Much like Prince William Sound, the source of Alaska’s world-famous Copper River reds, Bristol Bay is an ideal breeding ground for wild sockeye salmon.

Here in southwestern Alaska, hundreds of pristine streams drain into the bay and mingle with the cold, clean waters of the Bering Sea to form a biologically rich ecosystem. Bristol Bay supports not only red salmon, but all species of Pacific salmon as well as crabs, rainbow trout, halibut, herring, pollock and cod.

In fact, the bay provides the United States with a whopping 40 percent of the country’s fish catch. The Bay’s rich natural resources contribute as much as $500 million in commercial and sport fishing revenues to the state of Alaska each year.

That’s a lot to put at risk. Drilling would undermine commercial, recreational, and subsistence fisheries, and place people's livelihoods in jeopardy. Even a small oil spill could seriously harm fish, bird, and wildlife species.

Yet, the government’s own research shows that at least one large oil spill is likely to occur should offshore operations begin. In addition, the seismic testing required to find oil and gas reserves is known to disturb marine mammals and cause permanent damage to fish and crabs.

A little toxic waste with your salmon?

At the same time that these threats are looming offshore, Bristol Bay’s valuable salmon fishery is also facing extreme pressure from a multi-national mining corporation with plans to develop the world’s largest open-pit gold and copper mine upstream from the bay.

The proposed Pebble Mine is expected to:

  • cover some 15 square miles
  • produce 2.5 billion tons of toxic waste over its lifetime

The biggest threat is to salmon. But huge numbers of waterfowl and shorebirds use the region's coastal wetlands. Brown bears ply the rivers and shorelines. And, humpback, fin, gray and minke whales swim among walrus, seal and otter in abundant numbers. All of these species stand to lose if industrial development moves forward.

What The Wilderness Society is doing

The Wilderness Society is working closely with conservation partners such as Trout Unlimited and the World Wildlife Fund as well as with native people and other local residents whose lives would be affected by both on- and off-shore development threats, to ensure that these resources remain for generations to come.

You too can help by urging members of Congress to co-sponsor the Bristol Bay Protection Act, which would permanently protect Bristol Bay from offshore oil and gas leasing and development.

Take action and help us save Bristol Bay!