During a six-week period every summer, fishermen head out to Bristol Bay, Alaska, to catch their share of wild sockeye salmon. An estimated 38 million of the fish return to the bay each year, supporting a brief economy that creates 14,000 jobs and $1.5 billion in revenue.1
In a report prepared for the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, it’s noted that the area is the world’s most valuable wild salmon fishery, supplying nearly half the global supply of wild sockeye salmon.2 Even as other Alaskan fisheries have suffered — due to pollution, deforestation, dams, toxic algae and sometimes reasons unknown3 — Bristol Bay’s salmon have remained plentiful.
In 2018, 232 million pounds of salmon were harvested in Bristol Bay, a catch worth about $281 million.4 Its success, according to Tom Quinn, a University of Washington professor of aquatic and fishery sciences who spoke with The Nation, is owed to its unique geography and topography, which so far has staved off pollution and dams, along with good management by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.5
Threats are looming, however, that could change the future of Bristol Bay, putting what is close to the world’s most nutritious food at risk. Chief among them is Pebble Mine, a copper, gold and molybdenum open pit mine that’s slated to open in the area.
Gold Mining Operation Threatens Pristine Salmon Habitat
The proposed mine would radically change the environment in Bristol Bay. In addition to an open-pit mine, the project includes tailings storage facilities, water management ponds, a mill facility, a natural gas fired power plant and other mine facilities. The facility is estimated to span 8,086 acres, including a 608-acre pit that would reach 1,970 feet deep.6
The mine has a proposed operating life of 20 years, during which 1.3 billion tons of ore would be processed at a rate of 180,000 tons of ore per day.
Acidic waste from the mining operations, along with other waste products, are set to be disposed of in two facilities covering about 3,867 acres, while the U.S. EPA noted, “Water discharges from the pit lake following mine closure would require water treatment in perpetuity.”7 Environmentalists are understandably concerned. The Nation reported:8
“The process of extraction would generate a massive amount of acidic toxic water that must be kept out of the larger ecosystem.
The mine development would require building roads, power lines, pipelines and ports on undeveloped land, putting new stressors on fish habitat, says Lindsey Bloom, a longtime fisherwoman and a strategist with Salmon State, a political advocacy group opposed to the mine.
‘It directly impacts thousands of years of subsistence relationships with the landscape, tens of thousands of jobs, billions of dollars a year in economic activity at regional, state and global networks,’ she adds.”
The EPA, in 2014, stalled the mine proposal after stating it would “pose significant risks to the unparalleled ecosystem.” But Northern Dynasty Minerals, the company trying to open the mine, has moved through the political red tape, prompting the EPA to reverse their position in July 2019.
Pebble Mine Would Lead to Environmental Destruction
The mine, in a revised, smaller form, is moving forward once again, though according to The Nation, “EPA scientists still object. They’ve submitted over 100 pages of comments critical of the newest plan, saying that substantial concerns remain about adverse effects on the ecosystem.”9
Opponents have raised concerns that the dam meant to hold toxic mine tailings could fail, and even though the mine is slated to be smaller than before, operations could expand once it’s opened. Mine catastrophes that contaminate lakes and rivers, and take hundreds of human lives, are not unheard of, and even in the best-case scenario, experts suggest pollution in the area would be inevitable.
“They can’t capture and treat all their contaminated water … It is not a stretch to say mines always leak. Water quality downstream of mines is never what it was before you built the mine,” geomorphologist Cameron Wobus told The Nation.10
The National Resources Defense Council has also spoken out against the mine, with senior attorney Joel Reynolds stating about the EPA’s about-face, “This outrageous move is the … Administration’s gift to a foreign mining corporation at the expense of Bristol Bay’s fish, aquatic resources and community. Yet again, the agency charged with protecting our public health and environment is abandoning science — and the public — in order to advance the interests of a wealthy few.”11
In a Draft Environmental Impact Statement released by the Army Corps of Engineers, it’s estimated that Pebble Mine would destroy more than 3,500 acres of wetlands and 80 miles of stream. Still, even this is a gross underestimate, according to Save Bristol Bay, a group of individuals, organizations and businesses dedicated to protecting Bristol Bay.12
Along with threatening Bristol Bay’s sockeye salmon and the region’s related economy, more than 30 Alaska Native Tribes depend on the area’s salmon to support their traditional ways of life. “If the Pebble mine is developed, the subsistence culture of thousands of people who live in the Bristol Bay region will be threatened,” Save Bristol Bay explains.13
After the EPA’s initial decision about the mine was released in 2014, more than 670,000 Americans voiced their opinions during the 60-day public comment period, with 99% of them in favor of strong protections for the area’s watershed.14 Still, the proposal is moving forward, despite the grave risks it poses to one of the most important salmon habitats on the planet. Save Bristol Bay detailed what’s at stake:15
“In southwest Alaska, rivers, lakes and wetlands combine to provide some of the best wild salmon habitat on earth. An hour and a-half flight from Anchorage, the Bristol Bay watershed, an area roughly the size of West Virginia, is nestled between two national parks (Katmai and Lake Clark), and the nation's largest state park.
The area hosts three active volcanoes and Lake Iliamna, the 8th largest lake in the United States. Bristol Bay and its watershed are famous for their beauty and bounty of fish and wildlife.
With wild salmon runs disappearing from the planet, Bristol Bay is a place of international importance because of the salmon runs and the economies they support. All of this is risked by the Pebble mine and large-scale hard rock mining on adjacent public land.”
Salmon Is Possibly the Most Perfect Food
Wild-caught Alaskan sockeye salmon, with its rich concentration of beneficial omega-3 fats, is close to a perfect food. People with the highest levels of omega-3 fats lived for 2.22 more years after age 65 than those with the lowest, according to research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.16
None of the study participants took omega-3 supplements, so the omega-3 is presumed to have come from eating oily fish like salmon. The researchers suggested eating one to two servings of fatty fish per week could lead to health benefits, such as extended life span and a lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease.17
Salmon also contains beneficial B vitamins, which are important for energy production and have anti-inflammatory benefits, and the trace mineral selenium, which has antioxidant properties. Phosphorus and magnesium — important for bone health — can also be found in salmon, as can astaxanthin, an anti-inflammatory antioxidant that’s beneficial for heart and immune system health and has anticancer properties.18
Eating salmon regularly may reduce your risk of heart disease by increasing your omega-3 levels,19 support healthy weight loss20 and protect your brain health, even leading to slower cognitive decline with age.21 It’s important to understand, however, that not all salmon is created equal, and if you eat the wrong kind, it may harm your health more than it helps it.
Stay Away From Farmed and GE Salmon
Farmed salmon is presented as a sustainable seafood solution, but it carries many of the same problems posed by concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) on land. Farmed salmon may be raised in crowded pens in the ocean, where their excrement and food residues are disrupting local marine life. The potential for escape is also high, and farmed salmon is high in pollutants.22
In a global assessment of farmed salmon published in the journal Science, cancer-causing PCB concentrations in farmed salmon were found to be significantly higher than in wild salmon.23 Similarly, when the Environmental Working Group tested farmed salmon from U.S. grocery stores, they found farmed salmon had, on average:24
- 16 times more PCBs than wild salmon
- 4 times more PCBs than beef
- 3.4 times more PCBs than other seafood
Even land-based salmon aquaculture is problematic, according to research published in Scientific Reports, which performed an analysis of four salmon aquacultures in Chile.25 The facilities pump water from rivers into their hatcheries, then pump it back out to the river once it’s no longer clean.
As a result, the water is often contaminated with dissolved organic matter (DOM) — a mixture of liquid excrement, food residue and other salmon excretions, along with disinfectants and antibiotics.
The release of DOM into Chile’s rivers is causing significant ramifications for the entire ecosystem. Upstream of the fish farms, the researchers detected higher amounts of natural algae biofilms on rocks, which help to produce oxygen and provide food for organisms that fish later eat.
Downstream, however, biofilms had a greater abundance of bacteria, which use up oxygen and may lead to low-oxygen environments that could threaten many species. The researchers suggested that no additional fish farms should be installed on Chilean rivers, noting, “[R]ivers should not be misused as natural sewage treatment plants.”26
Further, since farmed salmon pens are often placed along wild salmon runs, they pose a severe threat to wild salmon stocks that pass by, exposing wild fish to diseases that run rampant among the confined fish, such as sea lice, pancreas disease, infectious salmon anemia virus and piscine reovirus, a highly contagious blood virus that causes heart disease in the affected fish.
Be aware, also, that salmon genetically engineered (GE) to grow unnaturally fast is being raised in Indiana and will soon be available, sold under a “bioengineered” label. However, the labeling isn’t mandatory until 2022, may be hidden behind a scannable code and isn’t required at all for GE salmon sold by restaurants and other food service locations.
How to Choose Healthy Salmon
You can often distinguish wild Alaskan salmon from farmed varieties just by looking at it. The flesh of wild sockeye salmon is bright red, courtesy of its natural astaxanthin content. It's also very lean, so the fat marks, those white stripes you see in the meat, are very thin. If the fish is pale pink with wide fat marks, the salmon is farmed.
When choosing salmon at the grocery store, avoid Atlantic salmon, as typically salmon labeled “Atlantic Salmon” comes from fish farms. The two designations you want to look for are “Alaskan salmon” and “sockeye salmon,” as Alaskan sockeye is not allowed to be farmed. Canned salmon labeled “Alaskan Salmon” is a good, more affordable option, and if you find sockeye salmon, it's also wild.
To avoid GE salmon, avoid any products labeled “bioengineered” and check any QR codes necessary to find out additional information. If you order salmon in a restaurant and it doesn’t specify that it’s wild caught, avoid it — or at least ask the restaurant directly whether it’s genetically engineered or not.
This is why the introduction of Pebble Mine to Bristol Bay is such a travesty. Protecting one of the world’s most important sources of wild Alaskan sockeye salmon — one of the world’s healthiest foods — is imperative. If industry is allowed to destruct this pristine habitat, our access to this priceless food source could forever be lost.
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