Trump’s Poison Pill for Alaska Salmon

By Carl Safina and Joel Reynolds

Bristol Bay, Alaska. Photo: Ryan Peterson

When you see it you realize, it’s not a small place. Forty thousand square miles. A broad tableau of emerald bogs and evergreen forests, the watershed tilting toward Alaska’s Bristol Bay shimmers with rivers and feeder streams whose waters reflect sky and clouds, all rimmed by distant mountains. In those glistening arteries, miracles happen. This system generates and sustains the largest remaining salmon fishery on Earth.

Alaska sockeye salmon. Photo: Ken Morrish

In the most important land-use decision in North America in our time, an essentially eternal supply of food is pitted against an essentially eternal supply of poison. In Donald Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency — poison wins. The Obama Administration took four years to understand the global importance of the Bristol Bay, Alaska, watershed, and recognize the unique recklessness of creating a huge open-pit mining operation here. Consistent with Donald Trump’s blasé attitude toward toxic contamination, Trump’s EPA relegated that careful Obama-era review to the dumpster. If Trump and Pebble Mine win, we all lose.

The Bristol Bay watershed now generates a tenth of all wild salmon and fully half the world’s sockeye salmon. Five species: the sweet, scarlet sockeyes; hard-charging kings; silver coho; humpbacked pinks; stolid chums. And much more, because Bristol Bay salmon knit together a vast land- and seascape whose value portfolio is scarcely hinted at by the phrase “half the world’s wild sockeye.”

Alaska sockeye salmon. Photo: Ken Morrish

Over sixty million wild salmon surged into Bristol Bay in 2018, converging from a thousand miles distant, driven instinctively toward faintly remembered scents of the region’s many rivers. Twice in 2017, fishermen caught over one million fish in a day. Records were shattered. Several overloaded boats actually sank. The fish support 14,000 jobs and annually generate $1.5 billion. Some of them land right on our tables.

Bristol Bay salmon fisherman. Photo: Wild Salmon Center

Every year, all of this just happens. No one puts anything in. It’s there for the taking, and could last another few thousand years. Nowhere else in the modern world does the landscape grant so much food, such riches. Harmlessly, beautifully. With such eternal grace.

Salmon fishing in Alaska. Photo: Perry Broderick

You’d think everyone would realize this place is sacred. For Native people it literally is. For other fishermen, their families and communities, it’s simply the greatest place in the world.

And when you understand all that, you realize — it’s really not a big place at all. It’s vulnerable. But all that’s needed is to not destroy it.

Enter: those who would. A Canadian mining company called Northern Dynasty Minerals has for more than a decade planned to gouge a gigantic open-pit gold and copper mine into the headwaters of the region, where the rain first begins to conjure its salmon-making magic. This mining project would essentially put the rivers on a centuries-long poison drip, one that would far outlast the mining activities. Left as is, the rivers, the salmon, the fishing, and the food would far outlast the mining.

Thus the Pebble Mine project is a death-wish. That’s why 65 percent of Alaskans oppose it, why recreational fishermen and tourist lodges detest it, why the region’s largest native development corporation refuses it, and why commercial fishing communities’ opposition is near-total and dead-set.

In recent years this monster seemed fatally wounded. The EPA’s years of detailed study, peer-reviewed science, and public comment concluded with the agency’s determination that the mine’s billions of tons of toxic-contaminated waste could not be reliably contained, especially over the centuries it would remain poisonous to water and wildlife; that the risks to seafood safety and salmon populations were “catastrophic;” that the generative value of the watershed exceeded the value of the mines that would destroy it. EPA proposed significant restrictions on the mine. Northern Dynasty’s corporate partners abandoned the project and the company’s stock value plunged 90 percent.

That was then. It’s a different White House now.

Trump’s EPA has reversed course on the Pebble Mine and dropped the proposed restrictions.

Never mind the Clean Water Act, the agency’s own science, Alaska natives, fishermen, communities, and our food.

And, over a chorus of objection, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is advancing Northern Dynasty’s permit application at lightning speed, with project approval expected before the end of Trump’s first term.

Salmon perform a surpassing alchemy, gathering and changing the thin nutrients of the ocean into delicious red flesh and then delivering themselves to us. Those that get past the nets bring the nourishment of the sea uphill against gravity to feed eagles and bears and to fertilize the forests that shade the streams that make more salmon that support communities who feed us.

Grizzly bear and sockeye salmon. Photo: Ken Morrish

Salmon offer us their resilience, but warn us of their fragility. Salmon live most of their lives as oceanic animals hundreds of miles from coastlines, but each generation depends on clean rivers in unspoiled landscapes. Having learned to exploit the sea, they still shelter their young from the dangers of the open ocean by hiding them in rivers. This winning strategy, we have turned into their Achilles’ Heel.

In the last century, we destroyed the largest salmon complex in the world, the Columbia River system. And today dams, warming, logging, and polluted runoff are continuing to kill and debilitate salmon from the south northward. British Columbia’s salmon farms idiotically breed Atlantic salmon that infest young native salmon with lethal parasites. The resident killer whales of the Pacific Northwest, too, are starving because of salmon destruction.

All that has been lost to the south remains fully functioning in the Bristol Bay watershed. Now threatened by Donald Trump and Pebble.

This is a battle the Trump Administration must be made to lose. The Pebble Mine sacrifices too much — economically, socially, culturally, and ecologically. Unnecessarily. Our responsibility to our fellow Americans, and coming generations, demands that the mine project be stopped, and the rivers and salmon maintained, un-ruined.


Carl Safina is Endowed Professor for Nature and Humanity at Stony Brook University. Joel Reynolds is western director and senior attorneyat Natural Resources Defense Council.

Read the Safina Center’s Pebble Mine Action Alert here, and the NRDC’s Action Alert here.