Guest Columnist

Pebble mine threatens sustainable food

Rich Patterson in Alaska in 1972. Submitted photo/Rich Patterson
Rich Patterson in Alaska in 1972. Submitted photo/Rich Patterson

In Lower Talarik Creek’s clear water I spotted a tag protruding from a rainbow trout’s fin. The fish took my lure, and soon I recorded the tag number in my data notebook before gently releasing it. I had inserted the tag a few weeks earlier at the downstream research weir where I worked.

Talarik Creek takes its name from the Yupik word “talaariq,” meaning “trout.” The small stream flows into 77-mile-long Lake Iliamna about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage, Alaska. Iliamna is the ssecond largest lake solely within the United States and sustains vast numbers of five species of salmon, char, grayling, and rainbow trout. Each summer the world’s largest sockeye salmon run swims its way from Bristol Bay up the Kvichak River to spawn in the big lake’s tributaries.

With a new degree in fishery management, I was hired by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in 1971 to work on sockeye salmon management. Later I conducted research on Talarik Creek’s rainbow trout.

Rivers of the vast wild land ringing Alaska’s Bristol Bay beckon salmon from their long journey around the Pacific to spawn in gravel beneath flowing clean water. In 2018, 43 million salmon, mostly sockeyes, were commercially caught in the Bay with millions more allowed to ascend tributaries to spawn and perpetuate the species. Fillets are flash frozen and sold across the world, including Eastern Iowa’s markets. Bristol Bay is a vast sustainable food resource.

Salmon form the basis of the wildlife food chain and economy of Southwestern Alaska. Native people, commercial fishermen, and sport lodges rely on fish that only thrive in the pure water of wild places.

In late July the Environmental Protection Agency loosened regulations formed under the Clean Water Act that would have prevented mines from contaminating Lake Iliamna’s water. The new change puts Northern Dynasty, a Canadian company, closer to creating a massive gold and copper mine in the wilderness near where I once tagged trout.

Salmon bring the ocean’s fertility, stored in their bodies, into Alaska’s otherwise cold sterile lakes and rivers. Bears, eagles, gulls, trout, grayling, and arctic char feast on the salmon bounty. Generations of Native Americans have depended on them for food, and with modern management and a clean environment plenty of fish remain to ship to consumers across the world, including Iowa.

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Salmon runs in the Columbia and most other northwest rivers are mere remnants of their once immensity, victims of dams, diminished water quality, and overfishing. When land is developed salmon and trout lose. So do the people and animals that depend on them.

Northern Dynasty’s proposed Pebble Mine will transform what is now an important, sustainable food resource and wilderness into a mile square pit with a footprint of housing, power plants, and roads easily ten times that size. It’s impossible to mine on that scale without fouling water, fracturing wilderness and threatening a sustainable food source.

For those reasons at least 80 percent of area Native Americans, fearing for their livelihood and culture, oppose the mine. So do many other Alaskans, commercial fishing interests and anglers.

Pebble Mine will yield profit for a few only until its minerals are exhausted at the expense of a perpetual sustainable food resource. The result will be disruption of native culture and permanent loss of income from both commercial and sport fishing. To allow mining will perpetuate our society’s history of disrupting Native American culture and sacrificing long term assets that benefit many for smaller short-term gain for the few wealthy.

The fate of salmon, trout, bears, native culture, and fishing rests with the EPA and Corps of Engineers. In the past few years they seem increasingly eager to make decisions favored by their political masters at the expense of human and environmental health. If they approve Pebble mine, wealthy investors win. The environment, Native Americans, and anyone who enjoys a delectable grilled sockeye fillet loses.

• After earning a degree in fisheries management from the University of Idaho Rich Patterson worked for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska from 1971-1973. He later became director of the Indian Creek Nature Center.

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