Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Protecting Bristol Bay:A Cultural Landscape and Home to the Sacred Sayak 

12-09-2015 17:35

Bristol Bay, Alaska, is the easternmost arm of the Bering Sea in southwest Alaska. It is a sacred place for Alaska Natives as it is home to the world’s largest remaining runs of wild salmon. Today Bristol Bay remains a pristine cultural landscape that has been left untouched by development and pollution, allowing the traditions of the Alaska Natives here to continue. All this may change, however, if Pebble Mine, a large new gold and copper mine is built nearby.

Many fear that the proposed mine will destroy the habitats of the wild salmon in Bristol Bay, as well as scar this cultural landscape, sacred to Alaska Native peoples.

Pebble Mine, which could prove to be one of the largest open-pit mines in the world, and will likely only be in operation until all the minerals are extracted, estimated to be anywhere from 40 to 80 years. However it will impact resources that have been in existence for thousands of years. Conservationists and others fear Pebble’s long-term impact could prove to be forever detrimental to the region’s wild salmon runs.

Bristol Bay and the Salmon Industry

Bristol Bay is surrounded by an untouched landscape which is composed of clean, freshwater lakes and rivers. These lakes provide important and diverse habitats for all five species of wild Pacific salmon, including the sockeye, as well as trout and other freshwater fish species. The region is only accessible by plane, and to date there has been no large industrial development or destruction of the freshwater habitat.

Bristol Bay is also home to many sports and commercial fisheries which generate more than $500 million in revenue each year and provide 14,000 jobs to people throughout Bristol Bay, Alaska, and the United States. The fisheries supply food to many people around the world who consider wild sustainable seafood a healthy choice for their diet. It provides about half of the world’s remaining wild sockeye salmon.

Importance to Native Alaskans

Sockeye salmon, called sayak in the Yup’ik language, is of critical importance to Alaska Natives for many reasons. Salmon have provided subsistence resources to villages throughout Western Alaska for millennia. The destruction of the salmon runs and the Bristol Bay cultural landscape will be devastating to Alaska Native peoples due to their dependence on the salmon as food and livelihood, and because it would undermine the practice of their cultures and identity as a people.

The area is especially important to the local indigenous peoples—Yup’ik Eskimos, Denaina Athabascans, Aleuts, and Alutiiqs— as evidenced in their oral histories and the more than 1,200 documented archeological sites in the region. Today, these people continue to depend upon the bay’s renewable resources for food, commercial income, and the practice of traditions. Bristol Bay’s Alaska Native villages include Dillingham, Aleknagik, Clark’s Point, Ekuk, Manakotak, New Stuyahok, Koliganek, Ekwok, Togiak, Twin Hills, and Portage Creek, to name a few.

Every spring, after the last ice breakup and the salmon begin to return to their spawning watersheds, Alaska Native families gather to prepare their fishing nets and smokehouses for the annual fish harvest. As their ancestors did, they gather at their fishing camps to work together to cut up the fish to either smoke it, jar it, or freeze for food in the winter.

The first sayak caught each year is shared first with the elders. The elders, who are highly respected, pass on traditions and culture, teaching the younger members how to fish and how to utilize the amazing fish resource.

Alaska Natives, representing 66 percent of Bristol Bay’s population, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, are highly dependent on the salmon. The State of Alaska conducted a study to quantify the importance of wild subsistence foods for Bristol Bay Alaska Natives. The study found that individually, an Alaska Native person on average consumes more than 211 pounds of salmon every year. The average subsistence fish consumption for Bristol Bay residents accounts for over half of all subsistence foods utilized.1 Many Alaska Natives believe that amount of salmon consumed is probably much higher, which further demonstrates the extent to which people in Bristol Bay depend on the salmon for food.

Alaska Natives also subsist on Belugas, seals and birds, which feed on or are dependent on salmon in one way or another. Even terrestrial animals, such as moose, benefit from salmon, as salmon bring the nutrients from the ocean up the river as they spawn, which in turn feed the vegetation that moose eat along riverbanks.

Bristol Bay’s Sport and Commercial Fishing Industry

In addition to the annual subsistence salmon harvest, many Alaska Natives rely on commercial salmon fishing for income. The peak of the sayak run is usually around July 4. Before then, thousands of salmon fishermen descend upon the region from throughout Alaska and the United States. The Alaska seafood industry provides jobs and a coastal economy that is very important in Alaska, and Bristol Bay’s salmon fishery is a big part of that. Nearly 40 percent of the wild-caught seafood in the United States is caught in Alaska, making the fishing industry the largest private-sector employer in the state. Many sport fishermen come to Bristol Bay as well, hoping to catch other huge fish such as king salmon or trout.

Proposed Mine Threatens Resources

In 1986 mining interests discovered a large mineral deposit in what is expected to be one of the largest copper-gold deposits in North America, and possibly in the world. A mining conglomerate called the Pebble Partnership was formed when Anglo-American, one of the largest global metal-mining corporations based in London, joined with Canadian-based Northern Dynasty to form a partnership. The proposed mine could be very large, and it is likely that more than 99 percent of the estimated 11 billion tons of ore mined at Pebble will be waste. A huge dam would need to be constructed to contain this waste and prevent it from affecting the complex freshwater ecosystem of lakes, streams, and rivers that are important habitats for the wild salmon.

The mineral deposit is also near the Pacific Rim of Fire, a huge ring of seismic and volcanic activity found on countries and landmasses that border the Pacific Ocean. Development of Pebble poses a serious threat in the event of natural disasters. For example, a large earthquake, like the one that occurred in Alaska in 1964, could destroy the proposed toxic-waste holding dam, spilling billions of tons of waste into Bristol Bay’s freshwater ecosystem.

Even without a disaster, potential toxic hazards posed by such a development include leakage of cyanide, heavy metals, and acid drainage that can pollute water and endanger fish and other wildlife. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has concluded that mining operations have contaminated up to 40 percent of all headwaters in the western continental United States.2 Further, mining operations would require the use of Bristol Bay’s freshwater ecosystem, destroying miles of important salmon spawning rivers and streams.

Copper, one of the largest minerals found near the proposed Pebble Mine, can be especially damaging to salmon survivability. Research shows that salmon are highly sensitive to small amounts of metals such as copper. Just a small amount of copper in a stream, in the parts per billion range, can affect the olfactory functions in salmon, which is very important for the migration to their natal rivers where they reproduce.3Washington State banned copper brake pads for this reason, in an effort to revive the few remaining wild salmon populations in the state.

Opposition to the Proposed Mine

A 2011 survey by the Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC), one of 13 regional native corporations created during the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, showed that more than 81 percent of its shareholders oppose the development of this mega-mine.4 This strong local opposition will create a problem for Pebble’s developers, as BBNC holds certain access and subsurface mineral rights, and, as a result of shareholder opposition, has vowed to block any access or development that would support the mine.

Additionally, the Lake and Peninsula Borough, a county-like municipality that the Pebble deposit is located in, passed a citizen’sbased ballot measure called the “Save Our Salmon Initiative.” The initiative resulted in an ordinance that makes large mining devel-opment, such as Pebble Mine, illegal. The ordinance is being challenged in court.

In spite of these local efforts to safeguard the fishery, Pebble Mine may still be approved by the federal, state and local agencies that will make decisions on the more than 60 permits that Pebble needs to proceed. This permitting system has been called flawed, however, and skeptics believe that the agencies may rubber-stamp a plan that looks good on paper but cannot ensure against accidents and unanticipated risks to the salmon fishery.

While Alaska Native peoples are hopeful that the State of Alaska will put strong protections in place to preserve Bristol Bay fisheries, there is also the potential for protection from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has authority under the Clean Water Act Section 404(c) to block certain development if it threatens waters important for fisheries. EPA initiated a watershed assessment in February 2011, to study the potential damage from the discharge of mining waste in Bristol Bay. The draft assessment released in May 2012 shows that large-scale industrial mining like the proposed Pebble Mine could harm Bristol Bay’s wild salmon runs.

Sustainable salmon fisheries and the ecosystems that depend on them are precious and integral to the culture of Bristol Bay Native peoples and have been for thousands of years. Alaskans depend upon Bristol Bay for food and jobs, as do many people from around the world. The Pebble Mine would pose great risk this natural and cultural resource.


1 “Bristol Bay Census Area: Subsistence.” Date unknown. Alaska Department of Community and Economic Development. December 10, 2007. Subsistence/Bristol_Subsistence_Narrative.htm.
2“Human Health and Environmental Damages from Mining and Mineral Waster,” July 2005. Environmental Protection Agency, January 29, 2008. minedock/damage/damage.pdf.
3K .M. Ramstad and C. A. Woody et al. “Concordance of nuclear and mitochondrial DNA markers in detecting a founder event in Lake Clark sockeye salmon.” 2007. American Fisheries Society Symposium February 9, 2008.
4BBNC Pebble Survey Results,” November 2011, Bristol Bay Native Corporation, May 2012, news-a-events/195-bbnc-pebble-poll.

Publication Date: Spring 2012



Author(s):Verner Wilson III