Imperiled Wilderness: Eight Things You Probably Don’t Know about Alaska’s Bristol Bay

Brown bear, alaska, alaskan, bristol bay, salmon, wilderness
An Alaska brown bear with a trio of cubs. Proposed mining in Alaska's Bristol Bay watershed jeopardizes the habitat of such animals.

The 40,000-square-mile Bristol Bay region of southwest Alaska stretches across pristine tundra and wetlands crisscrossed with rivers that flow into the bay. Up to 40 million sockeye salmon return to this watershed each year—the world’s largest salmon run. In addition to sockeye, there are stunning runs of king salmon plus trophy rainbow trout and the full array of Alaskan wildlife, including grizzly bears, wolves, moose, caribou and waterfowl.

Here are eight things you probably don’t know about Bristol Bay:

1. Native People

For thousands of years, the Native people of Bristol Bay (Yup’ik-Eskimo, Aleut and Athabaskan) have subsisted on the bay’s natural resources. Salmon is the lifeblood of Native village economies and ways of life. In addition to salmon, Native communities in the bay area rely on berries, caribou, moose, marine mammals, ptarmigan, ducks, geese and many plants as their main sources of food. About 7,500 people live in the region, 66 percent of them Alaska Natives.

2. Visitor Attractions

Five national parks, wildlife refuges and designated wilderness areas lie within the Bristol Bay region along with a number of state parks and state wildlife protection areas. From hub communities, visitors can enjoy wildlife viewing, boating, rafting, fishing, hunting, traditional subsistence activities, air tours, hiking, camping, cannery tours, museum tours and historic sites.

3. The Importance of Fish

Commercial fishing and associated canneries have been the major industries in the area for years, accounting for nearly 75 percent of local jobs. Nearly a third of all Alaska’s salmon earnings come from Bristol Bay, which is home to rivers and streams that are as productive today as they were thousands of years ago. Sport anglers come from all over the world for that once-in-a-lifetime experience. In total, an estimated 37,000 fishing trips are taken yearly to Bristol Bay freshwater fisheries, contributing $60 million annually to the state.

4. Wildlife and Bristol Bay

The pristine lakes and rivers that empty into Bristol Bay support all five species of Pacific salmon—king, sockeye, silver, chum and pink—as well as rainbow trout, arctic char, grayling, northern pike, lake trout and Dolly Varden. The region also supports healthy populations of moose, sea otters, grizzly bears, black bears, seals, walruses, porcupines, river otters, beluga whales, orcas, caribou, wolves, bald eagles and one of only two known populations in the world of freshwater seals.

5. The Bad News

Plans for large-scale mineral development in the headwaters of the bay’s best wild salmon rivers—such as the proposed gold- and copper-mining development called Pebble Mine—jeopardize Bristol Bay’s wilderness qualities.

6. How Pebble Mine Threatens Wildlife

Foreign mining companies are eyeing gold and copper deposits under Bristol Bay’s unique watershed. If built, Pebble Mine, located in an unstable seismic zone prone to frequent earthquakes, would be the largest open-pit mine in North America, up to 2 miles wide. It would require:

  • massive earthen dams to contain lakes of toxic mine waste t that could leak into surface waters and groundwater;
  • a 100-mile-long road into wilderness habitat;
  • a major new fossil-fuel power plant that would generate enough power to supply the city of Anchorage;
  • and nearly 35 billion gallons of water each year, critically reducing flow to multiple salmon rivers.

Toxic by-products are an inevitable result of such open pit mines, putting salmon, which are highly sensitive to the slightest increases in certain metals such as copper, at great risk.

7. More Development on Public Lands in Bristol Bay

The proposed Pebble Mine is not the only threat to Bristol Bay wilderness, wildlife, and economics. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which administers federal public land in the area, has recommended opening more than 1 million acres of vital fish and wildlife habitat in the Bristol Bay watershed to future hard-rock mines like Pebble. These public, wild lands are integral to the health of Bristol Bay’s salmon-supporting waters. BLM must be persuaded to pursue a future for the region that supports the renewable natural resources of Bristol Bay over the short-term gains of mineral extraction.

8. What NWF Is Doing to Protect Bristol Bay

As wild salmon runs disappear across the planet, Bristol Bay remains a place of international significance, providing a refuge for salmon and the people and wildlife that depend on them. NWF is working with a growing coalition to stop the Pebble Mine and safeguard the irreplaceable resources of Bristol Bay. Native communities, sport and commercial anglers, conservation groups, and NWF’s Alaska affiliatethe Renewable Resources Coalition—are all working together toward this common vision:

  • Prevent mining on Bristol Bay’s pristine federal lands and waters.
  • Close loopholes in the Clean Water Act to ensure hardrock mines like Pebble are not permitted unless they can protect clean water.
  • Support NWF’s Alaska affiliate, Renewable Resources Coalition, in the campaign to stop Pebble Mine and other hardrock-mining development on state lands.

How You Can Help

The pure waters and healthy habitats on which the grizzly bears of Alaska’s Bristol Bay depend could be devastated if mining interests get their way. Please donate today to protect wildlife in Bristol Bay and across America.

TAKE ACTION: Urge the Environmental Protection Agency to protect the wildlife of Bristol Bay against toxic mining.>>

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