To Fish or To Mine?: Saving Bristol Bay and Alaska's Fishing Industry

By: Michael Engle

Alaska is the site of an ongoing political battle, between two opposing interest groups, that will shape the state, national, and world economy for generations. Its legacy will be profound, as this economic decision will determine Alaska's course in fishing or mining.

Bristol Bay lies northwest of the Aleutian Mountain Range; it is separated from the Gulf of Alaska by the Alaska Peninsula. It is, currently, Alaska's most vital fishing ground, as it houses rainbow trout and five distinct varieties of salmon. Fishing in Bristol Bay has been identified as an important economic activity, accounting for 75% of local jobs, and $175 million per year to the economy. It is the center of a cultural tradition, as 2009 marked the 125th anniversary of local fishing. Bristol Bay also carries great international importance. In 2008, National Geographic identified Bristol Bay as one of only three "well-maintained" fisheries in the world. The other two are located in Iceland and New Zealand.

On the other hand, the Bristol Bay network is also home to large reserves of presently unmined natural resources. There is gold and copper within the Kvichak and Nushagak Rivers, which both flow into Bristol Bay.  If the Pebble Limited Partnership were to be allowed to proceed with its construction, the Pebble Mine would represent Alaska's largest mine. However, it is almost assured that any infusions to the Alaskan economy from the new mining would be offset by losses within the fishing industry. Mining would cause many disturbances to the local ecology, as it would not only produce large amounts of waste, but it would also require the construction of new dams (which are not guaranteed to survive earthquakes of a typical magnitude, relative to Alaska), while greatly disrupting the fishes' spawning grounds.

In a recent election in October 2011, the local Alaskan population passed the Save Our Salmon initiative, which subsequently prohibited the Lake and Peninsula Borough from issuing permits to mining projects that would negatively impact the fishing industry. It remains to be seen whether or not this election will serve as anything more binding than a straw poll, because the state legislature has the power to form economic policy that would override the local government. For now, even though the area's course of economic action is still to be decided, the locals have indeed voiced their opinion--by a vote of 280 to 246, the residents of the Lake and Peninsula Borough of Alaska prefer to forgo the area's mining possibilities, in favor of maintaining its fishing.

For more about Bristol Bay's fishing industry, click here. To read about the environmental impacts of a prospective mine, click here.


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