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Bristol Bay

By Robert Glenn Ketchum

Southwest Alaska and Bristol Bay comprise a relative undisturbed habitat that supports the most productive wild salmon fishery and one of the largest herring fisheries in the history of the world. Generating in excess of $100,000,000 dollars annually, this well-managed renewable resource employs thousands of people and represents the last major American fishery in North America that has not been tainted by industrial accident. Home to substantial populations of eagle, bear, wolf, caribou and many smaller mammals, as it is also the most biologically diverse freshwater system in the U.S.

Defining a healthy freshwater river and lake system, all the components are in this picture: lakes, streams, wetlands and fish (believe me they are in the picture, just not visible).

The expansive landscape of Southwest hosts to two national parks – Katmai and Lake Clark – two national wildlife refuges, and four designated state reserves, including the 1.6 million acre Wood-Tikchik State Park. Lake Iliamna, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world lies between Katmai and Lake Clark and forms the headwater of the massive Kvichak river, one of the commercial salmon fisheries most productive sources.

With only two small towns of less than 5,000 people, some 26 First Nation villages with populations of less than 500, and little more than 200 miles of paved road in an area roughly the size of the state of Washington, Southwest enjoys extraordinarily pristine air and water quality.

“Tree islands” exists because in the lower, water-saturated areas tree roots rot. Ground water here is right on the surface and it makes overland travel extremely difficult. It would make open-pit mining a technical nightmare as the mine would need perpetual pumping to remain workable.

Notably, this environment is water-saturated. It is so aqueous that except when frozen, overland travel is extremely difficult. Thousands of lakes and ponds dot the landscape, interwoven with hundreds of streams, all connected by swampy tundra meadows and bogs. Rainfall is frequent and significant, and winter averages more than 20 feet of snow in the interior, often driven by howling winds off the Bering Sea and brutal cold, frequently dipping below -30.

Because the water table is literally at the surface, an industrial concept such as open-pit mining in this environment presents nearly insurmountable challenges. Nonetheless, the state of Alaska has designated a 745-square-mile mining district, situated in the absolute heart of the fishery habitat, bordering Lake Clark National Park and impacting Lake Iliamna, home to a unique species of freshwater seal.

Inter-connected rivers and lakes define the landscape of Southwest Alaska. Building the Pebble mine would put this vast wilderness at risk and very likely collapse the $100,000,000 fishing industry that employs thousands of Americans.

A Canadian corporation, supported by international gold speculators is now seeking permits to build The Pebble, proposed to be the largest open-pit copper and cyanide gold-leach mine ever constructed. When concluded, The Pebble would be more than 2-miles wide and 2,000 feet deep. In a constant state of flooding, this mine would require perpetual pumping to divert the toxic laden and cyanide-laced leach waters into a 20-square mile lagoon. The lagoon would require monitoring in perpetuity, and it would be contained by an earthen dam large than the Three Rivers Gorge complex in China – all of this in one of the most volcanic and seismically active areas on the planet.

The mine complex would require more electricity and water than Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, and to produce this power, it will also mine and burn its own coal, substantially impacting the air quality of the two national parks, and indeed, the entire area of Southwest. The haul road will alter dozens of pristine salmon streams, and the loading terminal will very likely impact the genetically unique Beluga whales of Cook Inlet. The mine will also produce 3,000 pounds of rock tailings for every man, woman and child living on earth at this moment, and the developers have suggested Lake Iliamna might be a “logical” place to dump this toxic debris.

Born in the wilderness of Lake Clark National Park, the Mulchatna River flows forth from Fishtrap Lake. Ultimately it joins the massive Nushagak river system, one of the two most significant commercial salmon fisheries of Bristol Bay - and also one of the river groups to be directly affected by the construction of the Pebble mine.

Bristol Bay is America’s last, clean seafood resource. Southwest is a park-filled wilderness with a very valuable future of tourism and recreational sport, all renewable resources providing jobs for Americans. Allowing the development of The Pebble mine would provide little money to the U.S economy, very likely damage the fish resources, and once the speculators take their profit, U.S. taxpayers will be stuck with the toxic clean-up. This mining proposal is a travesty. If America fails to say NO to The Pebble mine, it will be one of the greatest mistakes we have ever made.

About Robert Glenn Ketchum

Robert is a Founding Fellow at the International League of Conservation Photographers.  Over the last 40 years, Robert Glenn Ketchum’s imagery, writing, exhibitions, numerous books and personal activism have helped to define photography’s successful use in conservation advocacy. At the same time, Ketchum’s decades of color printing are one of the most unique bodies of work in contemporary color photography, and the textile translations of his photographs created in China since the early 1980’s are among the most beautiful and complex textiles in contemporary art.  More about Robert here.

The views expressed in this guest blog post are those of the International League of Conservation Photographers and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Readers are welcome to exchange ideas or comments, but National Geographic reserves the right to edit or delete abusive or objectionable content.

Comments

  1. Lloyd Montgomery
    Cordova Alaska
    August 23, 2012, 2:23 pm

    2012 at the Naknek high school EPA meeting how does one take 120 seconds and sum up their Way of life in Bristol Bay , Thank you for a very nice article . Ty for taking your time and finances. to share with the rest of the world . They say out of sight out of mind well you brought this to more people than we know Ty ..

  2. Togiak River Salmon Fishing
    Togiak River
    April 2, 2012, 2:16 am

    I really appreciate your amazing article plus so much beautiful pictures of nature. very useful information. Thanks for doing such great work.

    Best Regards,
    Togiak River Salmon Fishing

  3. [...] Read the rest of the Bristol Bay article here: National Geographic [...]

  4. Brett Veerhusen
    Seattle & Bristol BAy
    October 18, 2011, 5:49 pm

    Thanks for this wonderful article. I am a commercial fisherman for Bristol Bay and we are in the fight for our lives! Please know that you can take action by joining the Save Bristol Bay initiative. The commercial and sport fishermen are currently on a national Save Bristol Bay Road Show raising awareness about the Pebble Mine. Thanks for your support Nat Geo!