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Bristol Bay

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 40 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

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 Natives. 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.

Visitors to the Bristol Bay region can stop in to five national parks and wildlife refuges, designated wilderness areas, and 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 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. The Bristol Bay area is also 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

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.

The region also supports healthy populations of many more animals, including mammals such as moose, wolverines, porcupines, foxes, caribou, wolves, grizzly bears, and black bears. Beavers, sea otters, river otters, walruses, seals, beluga whales, and orcas also inhabit the area. The freshwater seals in the bay are actually one of only two populations in the world. Bald eagles, waterfowl, and migratory birds can be seen around the bay as well.

Threats & Conservation

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 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 (3.2 kilometers) wide. The mine, located in an unstable seismic zone prone to frequent earthquakes, will require nearly 35 billion gallons of water a year, critically reducing flow to multiple salmon rivers. It will also require massive earthen dams to contain lakes of toxic mine waste that could leak into the surface and groundwater. The mine would need a 100-mile (160-kilometer) road into wilderness, and a major new fossil fuel power plant—generating enough power to supply the city of Anchorage.

Toxic by-products are an inevitable result of open pit mines like the proposed Pebble Mine. In fact, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, 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

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 Mine. These public, wild lands are integral to the health of Bristol Bay's salmon-supporting habitat, and the 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.

Sources

Alaska Department of Fish and Game
Masterworks of Yupik Science and Survival
Our Bristol Bay
Southwest Alaska: Bristol Bay
United States Environmental Protection Agency

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