Bristol Bay Sockeye Salmon
A national treasure
At the turn of the century, the industrial revolution ran like a wildfire up and down the west coast leaving ecosystems in tatters and the once iconic salmon runs a mere shadow of their former selves. Dams were erected, forests were chopped down, mines constructed, and irrigation diversions all sapped the once vibrant salmon rearing grounds of what was needed to sustain their populations. Canneries were some of the first buildings constructed along the Columbia and overharvest was commonplace. Before we even knew what existed, it was gone. The keystone species which supported all forms of life entered a precipitous decline continuing to this day. In the far north, there was one place which avoided this fate, Bristol Bay, Alaska. This vast region was protected by its shear remoteness, harsh climate, and unforgiving wildness. Like an apparition from a bygone era, sockeye salmon still pour out of the Pacific Ocean by the millions to these untouched and pristine waters. The relentless arm of industry long held at bay now has its eyes squarely set on developing and thus destroying this, our last functioning mega salmon run. Pebble Mine is the vanguard for an industry which wants to build massive open pit mines in this delicate region. The battle against Pebble has reached a critical stage as just recently the EPA announced they will use the clean water act to begin a process that may block the proposed mine entirely.
No single species defines the Pacific coast more so than salmon. While efforts to restore and preserve these salmon runs in the lower 48 continue, in Bristol Bay things exist as they always have. A thousands year old native culture rely on them, the tundra springs to life due to them, apex predators gorge on their abundance, and sustainable economies rely on their return. The Aleut-Alutiq, Athabascan, and Yup’ik cultures catch, dry, smoke, and subsist off this source of protein as they have for time immemorial. Their first language is their own and they are the most intact native cultures in North America. Salmon push to the headwaters of every available river system resulting in an irreplaceable transfer of nutrients from sea to sky. These still intact salmon runs support the largest populations of Grizzly bears on the planet. Caribou herds graze the salmon fertilized plants and everything relies on this food chain, even down to the smallest plants and organisms. Sustainability is more than a buzzword when it comes to the commercial fishery. This massive region supports the largest sockeye salmon fishery on earth and is managed in such a way to go on forever. It is a billion dollar a year industry that provides the healthiest of food to the most discerning of consumers. Sportsmen worldwide, dream of someday wetting a line here and this thriving industry in itself is worth another hundred million dollars, providing employment for thousands. This place overwhelms the senses and enlivens the spirit; its mere existence gives us hope and a place to dream of. Bristol Bay now faces its most dire of threats at its very heart. Mining interests have found some of the largest deposits of precious metals on earth and plan industrial development as large as any projects on earth.
The intensity with which this ecosystem and landscape hum is unmistakable. At its center are Lake Illiamna and the Nushagak River. Alaska’s largest lake and its tributaries are responsible for almost half the regions sockeye salmon and represent the largest salmon run on earth. The Nushagak is the next largest producer and one of the top king salmon rivers on the planet. The proposed Pebble Mine is directly above these drainages and exploratory mining is occurring throughout the region. Hard rock mining of this magnitude spells disaster for the fish, the culture, and the ecosystem. In scientific terms these fish stocks are known as a strong portfolio. The genetic diversity of so much productivity guarantees their sustainability and vibrancy. The potential loss of this core population threatens not only the immediate area, but the region as a whole.
Salmon are counted by the hundreds as they wriggle over concrete barriers up and down the Pacific coast, while in Bristol Bay they are stockpiled by the millions. So numerous is this run, if you were to stack them nose to tail they would stretch from Bristol Bay to Australia and back. The fact that salmon still exist on many southern rivers is a testament to their fierce determination and evolutionary mastery. Stragglers still perpetuate their species against the steepest of odds. Their efforts know no limit. A Sockeye salmon known only as Lonesome Larry was the only one to return to a Lake in Idaho after swimming 900 miles and passing 8 dams. Redfish Lake, which in a bygone era, saw tens of thousands of these ocean going vagabonds return and had nearly lost its namesake. This story has been repeated over and over from the Puget Sound to Los Angeles. The usual culprits, who led to the downfall of our iconic Pacific Coast species, now want a repeat performance in this last great place. Bristol Bay is the last treasure in the chest and it is where the line will be drawn. The EPA now has its chance to preemptively veto Pebble Mine by using the 404(c) clause of the clean water act. If ever there was a legitimate case for this, the headwaters of the greatest salmon runs on earth is it.
We are down to the last few days, Sign this NOW! www.savebristolbay.org/takeaction
This 3 month odyssey to Bristol Bay was funded by individuals who believed and supported me via kickstarter, it was backed by the good stewards at Orvis and lent a huge hand by the Egdorfs. Thank you. The only way I am able to share this content is through this blog: http://fisheyeguyphotography.wordpress.com/
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