Bristol Bay

Spawning Salmon

The Bristol Bay region in southwest Alaska--covering 40,000 square miles--is pristine wild country stretching across tundra and wetlands, crisscrossed with rivers that flow into the Bay. Up to forty million sockeye salmon return to this watershed each year, making it the world's largest run. In addition to sockeye, there are stunning runs of King salmon plus trophy rainbow trout and the full array of Arctic wildlife, including grizzly bears, wolves, moose, caribou and waterfowl.

Bristol Bay's pure waters, healthy habitat and breathtaking wilderness setting generate billions of dollars for the local economy by sustaining a thriving commercial and sport fishing industry, a vast variety of wildlife, and the centuries-old subsistence lifestyle of Alaska Natives.

People and Bristol Bay

Native People:
For thousands of years, the Native people of Bristol Bay (Yup’ik-Eskimo, Aleut and Athabaskan) have subsisted on the bay's natural resources. About 7,500 people live in the region, 66 percent of whom are Alaska Native. Salmon is the lifeblood of village economies and ways of life. In addition to salmon, Native communities in this area rely on berries, caribou, moose, marine mammals, ptarmigan, ducks, geese and many plants as their main sources of food.

Within the Bristol Bay region are five national parks and wildlife refuges, designated wilderness areas, as well as a number of state parks and state wildlife protection areas. From hub communities, visitors can enjoy wildlife viewing, boating, rafting, fishing, hunting, traditional subsistence activities, air tours, hiking, camping, cannery tours, museum tours, and historic sites.

Commercial Fishers:
Commercial fishing and the associated canneries have been the major industries in the area for years, accounting for nearly 75 percent of local jobs. Nearly one-third of all Alaska's salmon harvest earnings come from Bristol Bay.

Sport Fishers:
The Bristol Bay area is home to rivers and streams that are as productive today as they were thousands of years ago. Sport anglers come from all over the world for that "once in a lifetime" experience. In total, an estimated 37,000 fishing trips are taken each year to Bristol Bay freshwater fisheries, contributing $60 million annually to the state.

Wildlife and Bristol Bay

The pristine lakes and rivers that empty into Bristol Bay support world-renowned spawning and harvesting of all five species of Pacific salmon--king, sockeye, silver, chum, and pink--as well as rainbow trout, arctic char, grayling, northern pike, lake trout and Dolly Varden.

Bald Eagle

The region also supports healthy populations of:

  • Moose
  • Sea Otter
  • Grizzly, Brown, and Black Bear
  • Seal and Walrus
  • Beaver
  • Wolverine
  • Freshwater Seals (1 of only 2 populations in the world)
  • Porcupine
  • River Otter
  • Beluga and Killer Whales (Orca)
  • Fox
  • Caribou
  • Wolves
  • Bald Eagles 
  • Waterfowl & Migratory Birds

Threats to Bristol Bay

For thousands of years, Bristol Bay has been untouched by development, providing optimal conditions for returning salmon. Yet plans for large-scale mineral development, such as the Pebble gold and copper mine in the headwaters of the bay's best wild salmon rivers, could change this place forever.

Pebble Mine

Foreign mining companies are eyeing gold and copper deposits underneath Bristol Bay's unique watershed. If built, Pebble Mine will:

  • Be the largest open pit mine in North America, up to two miles wide.
  • Require massive earthen dams to contain lakes of toxic mine waste that could leak into the surface and groundwater.
  • Be located in an unstable seismic zone prone to frequent earthquakes.
  • Require a 100 mile road into wilderness, and a major new fossil fuel power plant - generating enough power to supply the city of Anchorage.
  • Require nearly 35 billion gallons of water a year, critically reducing flow to multiple salmon rivers.

Toxic by-products are an inevitable result of open pit mines like the proposed Pebble Mine. In fact, according to the EPA, the hardrock mining industry is the single largest source of toxic waste and has caused enormous damage to rivers and fisheries around the world. This puts salmon at great risk, as they are highly sensitive to even the slightest increases in certain metals like copper, interfering with their sense of smell, direction, and ability to evade predators.

More Development on Public Lands in Bristol Bay

The proposed Pebble Mine is not the only threat to this pristine land. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has recommended opening more than one million acres of vital fish and wildlife habitat in the Bristol Bay watershed to future hardrock mines like Pebble. These public, wild lands are integral to the health of Bristol Bay's salmon-supporting habitat, and BLM must be convinced to pursue a future for the region that supports the renewable natural resources of Bristol Bay over the short-term gains from mineral extraction.

Working to Protect Bristol Bay

National Wildlife Federation is working with a growing coalition to stop the Pebble Mine and safeguard the irreplaceable resources of Bristol Bay. Native communities, sport and commercial anglers, conservation groups, and NWF's Alaska affiliate, the Renewable Resources Coalition, are all working together toward this common vision.

NWF's Three-Pronged Strategy:

  • Prevent mining on Bristol Bay's pristine federal lands and waters.
  • Close loopholes in the Clean Water Act to ensure hardrock mines like Pebble are not permitted unless they can protect clean water.
  • Support NWF's Alaska affiliate, Renewable Resources Coalition, in the campaign to stop Pebble Mine and other hardrock mining development on state lands.

As wild salmon runs disappear from the planet, Bristol Bay remains a place of international significance, providing a refuge for salmon and the people and wildlife that depend on them. Let’s make sure that Bristol Bay is managed for its natural resources so that future generations can enjoy this wilderness paradise.

Bristol Bay Stewards

NWF would like to thank our "Bristol Bay Stewards", dedicated donors who give gifts of $1,000 or more to protect the prolific fisheries and resources of Alaska's Bristol Bay:

Anonymous - Marietta, GA
David and Janet Little - Kenmore, WA
Steve Phillips - Seattle, WA
Mark Quinn - Olympia, WA

Join the Campaign to Save Bristol Bay, an effort to protect Bristol Bay from the Pebble Mine and future mining proposals that threaten this pristine wilderness. Your support will help us protect this unique legacy that can be found nowhere else in the world. To become a Bristol Bay Steward, please contact Nic Callero at (206) 285-8707x114 or


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