Bristol Bay at Risk

Imagine a place where the watershed is un-engineered, where the ecosystem’s productivity and potential is fully realized. It produces half the world’s wild sockeye salmon and is home to more brown bears than people. Then imagine that greed for minerals, driven by mass consumption, threatens it.

Alaska’s Bristol Bay is that place.

GIF of underwater footage of adult coho salmon

Bristol Bay is a 42,000 square mile (1.87 million hectare) watershed that encompasses the southeast corner of the Bering Sea. Ringed by the Kuskokwim Mountains to the north and the Aleutian Range to the south and east, the area is almost wholly undeveloped. The watershed includes two of the nation’s largest national parks (Katmai and Lake Clark), three giant national wildlife refuges (Alaska Peninsula, Becharof, and Togiak), the nation’s largest state park (Wood-Tikchik), as well as millions of acres of undeveloped lands and waters. In short, it is one of the most spectacular and wildest landscapes on the continent.

Wildness, however, doesn’t equate unpeopled. Humans have lived in the Bristol Bay region for at least 9,000 years and likely longer (the oldest human habitation sites were probably flooded by rising sea levels at the end of the last ice age).  Bristol Bay’s Yupik, Alutiiq, and Dena’ina developed a complex relationship with the resources they used to survive, especially salmon. Today, salmon remain the cultural, economic, ecological heartbeat of the region.

Born in freshwater and grown large in the sea, salmon are a conveyor of energy and nutrients. Their upriver migration feeds everything from mink, otter, eagles, and brown bears to 30 inch-long rainbow trout and 10-pound char. After spawning, they die and their decomposing bodies distribute millions of pounds of fertilizer, substantially increasing the productivity of an otherwise nutrient poor freshwater system. Salmon even help plants grow faster.

The area’s abundance isn’t fantasy either. Bristol Bay’s 2018 salmon run was the largest on record, with over 62 million wild salmon returning. Of that run, 21 million sockeye went uncaught and escaped upstream to spawn. 2018 was the fourth consecutive year that sockeye salmon runs exceeded 50 million fish. Exvessel value, the activities that occur when a commercial fishing boat lands or unloads a catch, was worth $281 million dollars. In 2010, during a much smaller run compared to 2018, harvesting, processing, and retailing Bristol Bay salmon created $1.5 billion in sales across the U.S. The value of salmon is even higher when all salmon related jobs—fishing, processing, tourism, supplies, services, and government—are taken into account.

Pebble Mine puts all that at risk.

GIF of underwater footage of sockeye salmon

Pebble Mine is a proposed open pit copper and gold mine at the northern headwaters of Bristol Bay. The fully developed mine site would encompass over 8,000 acres. Tailings ponds and an open pit would straddle two incredibly productive salmon producing watersheds—the Kvichak and Nushagak. Supporting infrastructure would include a 270-megawatt power generating plant, a 188-mile natural gas pipeline, dozens of miles of roads, and up to three new ports where no development currently exists.

As part of the required permitting process, the Army Corps of Engineers is currently soliciting comments on its draft Pebble Mine Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). Comments will be accepted until May 30. I’m working on my comments now and plan to share them in another post, but the draft is huge, over a thousand pages long, so it’s taking me some time to read. However, my initial evaluation of the document has revealed major concerns.

  • The DEIS evaluates the mine’s active phase (20 years), but pays little attention to the true lifespan of the mine’s footprint, which will extend for hundreds, even thousands of years and create a permanent hazard to the watershed. After the mine’s proposed 20-year operation phase is complete, the landscape is supposed to be reclaimed. Tailings and waste rock will be stored underground or underwater in the former open pit. The open pit will be allowed to fill with water. Once the open pit lake rises high enough, water would be pumped from it, treated to meet water quality standards, and discharged into the watershed. This must happen forever to prevent groundwater contamination.
  • The DEIS does not evaluate the effects of a catastrophic tailings dam failure, which would release a toxic slurry of material into the Kvickchak and Nushagak watersheds. The risk of this is low, but that’s beside the point. The risk still exists and cannot be eliminated.
  • The DEIS does not evaluate who will pay for and maintain permanent water treatment in the open pit.* There is currently no financial plan to fund wastewater treatment after the 20-year operational phase when the mine is to be “reclaimed.” Who’s to pick up the tab when the Pebble Partnership, the mining consortium owned by Northern Dynasty Minerals, decides to walk away? The partnership claims financial assurance for site closure and monitoring is required before construction, but this does not assure funding for perpetual waste-water treatment. Since the corporation cannot guarantee financial solvency forever, it should not be allowed to create hazards that last forever.
  • The DEIS does not sufficiently evaluate the cultural impact the loss of salmon would represent to local residents, especially Native Alaskans. I’ve never been to any place where a single group of animals means as much to a regional culture as salmon do for the residents of Bristol Bay. For them, loss of salmon would be equivalent to the loss of bison for American Indians across the Great Plains.
  • Supporting roads, ports, and other infrastructure have the potential to disrupt some the best, untrammeled bear habitat in the region, especially for bears that use the McNeil River area just north of Katmai National Park.

Pebble’s proponents argue that the mine and salmon can coexist, but the two are at fundamental odds and always will be. Mike Heatwole, president of Public Affairs at the Pebble Partnership, told Mashable that the mine will cause no “population-level challenges to fish and wildlife resources.”

Screen shot from Pebble Partnership website. Text says, "Where is Pebble? Despite what you may have heard, Pebble is not at the headwaters of Bristol Bay. It is located at the upper reaches of three small tributaries — out of more than 50,000 in the Kvichak and Nushagak watersheds."

Pebble Partnership also claims the mine isn’t at the headwaters of Bristol Bay, which is blatantly false. This screen shot is taken directly from their website.

Despite talk that the salmon “population” won’t be affected, the mine reduces spawning and rearing habitat no matter what. Even under a best-case scenario where Pebble Partnership keeps its word, this is still precisely how we begin to lose salmon—one impassible culvert, one dam, one mine at a time. A few yards of stream here, a little more there. Does that matter? It sure does, as the story of salmon in the contiguous 48 states illustrates.

When Lewis and Clark explored the lower Columbia, they found the riverbanks lined with people, and a regional subsistence and trade economy based on the river’s salmon. In less than 150 years, it was gone. Farther upstream at Spokane Falls, people once gathered for thousands of years to catch 60 – 80 pound chinook. Those runs too are nothing more than memory.

In Washington State today, we bicker over the last of the wild salmon, considering whether to cull sea lions to help save an endangered population of starving orcas. Not far from where I live, Baker River sockeye are completely dependent on human intervention for their survival, because dams now completely block access to their spawning grounds. The outlook for salmon isn’t good on the rest of the west coast either. By 1999, wild salmon had disappeared from about 40 percent of their historic range in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and California. Across the continent in Maine, where people have taken great strides to clean up rivers and remove some barriers to salmon migration, almost no wild Atlantic salmon remain. Twelve Atlantic salmon returned to Maine’s second and third largest rivers, the Androscoggin and Kennebec, respectively, in 2018. Twelve.

No single factor caused the collapse of salmon runs in New England or the west coast. It was death by a thousand cuts. They were treated as an afterthought at best, undervalued and willingly sacrificed for “progress.” Similarly, if developed, Pebble Mine probably won’t be the end to salmon in Bristol Bay, but it could certainly be the beginning of the end. As Van Victor, president of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, rhetorically asked, “At the end of the day, do we really want to risk what is truly one of mother nature’s wonders of the world for copper and gold?”

GIF of underwater footage of salmon fry

Young salmon fry feed in one of Bristol Bay untarnished rivers.

If you haven’t seen Bristol Bay, if you haven’t experienced what a truly wild and healthy ecosystem is like, then it might be easy to dismiss my concerns. It can be hard to imagine rivers and streams flooded with fish, where wildlife and people flourish on the seasonal treasure. That dynamic simply no longer exists in most of the rest of North America and we, unfortunately, consider it normal. In conservation biology, this generational amnesia is called shifting baseline syndrome: Every generation sees nature through a different lens and what we view as normal is actually degraded. Our threshold for acceptable environmental conditions is continually being lowered.

Thankfully, we don’t have imagine or scour history books to understand what Bristol Bay’s fishery and ecosystem was once like because it is what it has been since the last of the Ice Age glaciers melted from the landscape. We can still experience it at its full potential. It’s a treasure to savor and protect.

But we could lose it, quite easily in fact. Pebble Mine represents greed over sustainability. If developed, it provides clear evidence we won’t stop till the entire world is consumed. Future generations will judge us poorly if we take everything and leave nothing. It takes a special kind of naiveté to believe otherwise.

 

*I’d like to add a correction on this point. According to James Fueg of the Pebble Partnership, a closure bond would have to be in place before construction can begin, with the bond’s purpose to fund perpetual wastewater treatment by the state. This is good and something I didn’t know about. However, this is of little consolation. It is unethical for a private corporation to create a permanent hazard that the government then must forever ensure is contained. It’s not in the public’s best interest, and shouldn’t be allowed.

My Live Bearcam Broadcasts in 2018

This was a busy year on the bearcams, courtesy of explore.org and Katmai National Park. We hosted more live broadcasts this  year than any other year since the bearcams first went live in 2012.

During play-by-play broadcasts Katmai rangers and myself narrated the Brooks River’s wildlife activity, much like broadcasters for sporting event (although the lives of brown bears and salmon is no game). We never knew what might happen during a play-by-play. Watching the prolonged posturing between two of Brooks River’s largest adult males, 856 and 32 Chunk, on July 12 and integrating the ranger’s radio traffic into the September 17th broadcast are two of my favorite play-by-play moments.

The other broadcasts, live chats, typically focused on a specific topic such as bear fishing styles, hibernation, and bear research at Brooks River. Rangers Andrew LaValle and Russ Taylor from Katmai joined me as frequent co-hosts for live chats and I was also fortunate enough to speak with many special guests. Perhaps the most memorable moment from these broadcasts occurred when bear 132 and her spring cub almost stepped on Ranger Andrew and I during our Katmai centennial live chat on September 24.

If you enjoy these, then please watch many other broadcasts hosted by Katmai National Park rangers and staff on explore.org’s education channel on YouTube.

 

Stuff I wrote in 2018

I was busy on a keyboard this year, even though there were long gaps between posts on this site. In case you missed them, here are the posts that I wrote for explore.org in 2018. They are listed in the order they were posted. My personal favorites include “How does a bear family breakup,” “How many salmon will a bear eat,” “Bearcam live chat surprise,” and “Living with Bears in Churchill.”

  • Brooks River Bear Mating Season: In June, food isn’t the only thing on a bear’s mind.
  • 2018 Bearcam Stories: 503: Emancipated from his adopted mom in the spring of 2016, bear 503, also known as Cubadult, has quickly grown into an energetic and often playful young adult.
  • Early June at Brooks Falls:  Standing at the falls from early to mid June is an exercise in patience and an opportunity to reflect on the changes soon to come.
  • 2018 Bearcam Stories: The Elders of Brooks River: Their longevity of Brooks River’s oldest bears demonstrates a level of individual success few bears achieve.
  • The Mouth of Brooks River: The lower river cams provide expansive views, colorful sunrises and sunsets, as well as the opportunity to see many yearly and seasonal changes.
  • What to Look for 2018: The Bear Hierarchy: Watching the ebb and flow of the hierarchy allows us to at least partly understand the conflict and challenges faced by bears.
  • Bear 856: On Top Again: Bear 856 appears to be big enough and healthy enough to show the river’s other adult male bears he’s ready to compete once again.
  • Death of a Bear Cub at Brooks River: As the smallest and most vulnerable of all bears, first year cubs (also called spring cubs or cubs-of-the-year) face significant risks and challenges, not the least of which are larger bears.
  • Dumpling Mountain Hike: Rising over 2000 feet above Brooks River, Dumpling Mountain offers anyone a quick escape from the hustle and bustle of Brooks Camp. Each time I hike on it, I get an opportunity to see the land in a new way.
  • Four Cubs for 402 Again: No matter this family’s fate, we can marvel at 402’s determination to follow her maternal instincts in an attempt raise another generation of Brooks River’s bears.
  • How Does a Bear Family Breakup? Until somewhat recently, I stated that 402 had “abandoned” her yearling (now known as 503). While this might be true in a sense, I no longer think that this is an accurate way of describing the event. After reading more about the emancipation process, I’ve come to believe 402 didn’t abandon her yearling in 2014. She emancipated him.
  • How Many Salmon will a Bear Eat? We often observe bears partake in marathon fishing sessions at Brooks Falls, so how much can they eat in a day or season? Quite a lot.
  • Salmon on the Underwater Bearcam: The calmer, deeper water near the outlet of Brooks River provides salmon with a temporary refuge that is relatively safe and costs them little energy.
  • 451 and Her Yearlings: 451 is currently raising her second litter, and it’s easy to see that the family is skinner than many of the other bears on the bearcams.
  • Bearcam Line of Sight: Where are the bearcams and where, specifically, do they look?
  • Brooks Falls Trail: Simply walking to Brooks Falls can be an exciting and memorable experience and allows great opportunities to explore a changing habitat.
  • Mid Summer Change at Brooks River: Are fewer bears at Brooks River a sign of change?
  • An Exceptional August: Regarding bear activity at Brooks River, August 2018 has been exceptional.
  • Fishing By Snorkeling: Efficient and effective, snorkeling is one of the best strategies to scavenge fish.
  • Can a Bear be Too Fat? When you see bears whose stomachs appear to drag on the ground, one wonders if a bear can grow too fat for its own good.
  • Bearcam Live Chat Surprise: “This being a live broadcast it’s entirely possible…a bear could walk through the screen at any time. So if we have to exit or end the broadcast abruptly that’s probably why.”
  • Fat Bear Week Quarterfinal Preview: The competition just keeps getting bigger.
  • Mike Fitz’s Favorite Bearcam Moments of 2018: Here are a few of my favorite bear cam moments for 2018.
  • Evidence of Rapid Change in Katmai: the Ukak and Savonoski Rivers spill across a broad, 1.5-mile wide delta. In a landscape often defined by change, this is one of the most dynamic places in Katmai National Park.
  • 2018’s Top Ten Bearcam Moments: the people have spoken! Bearcam viewers have chosen the top ten bearcam moments of 2018. Each moment is unique and significant for a different reason.
  • Living with Bears in Churchill: The confluence of bears and people in this remote community has created a special set of challenges, which can only be met through the town’s willingness to tolerate the largest four-legged predator on Earth.

Pebble Mine Scoping Comments

Recently, I wrote about an impending threat to Bristol Bay’s salmon: Pebble Mine. The mine, if developed, will have significant effects across some the richest salmon and brown bear habitat left on Earth.

Salmon remain the ecological and cultural heartbeat of Bristol Bay. This mine will create billions of tons of semi-fluid toxic waste, which must be treated and prevented from entering the watershed indefinitely. Impacts from development are never completely restricted to the development’s footprint either. Roads fragment habitat and vehicle traffic displaces wildlife.

When I was born, Pacific and Atlantic salmon fisheries in the Lower 48 states were already significantly degraded. Nearly 40 years later, many salmon stocks in New England, California, Oregon, and Washington remain threatened or endangered. Only a small fraction of fish return to these areas compared to historic levels. I’m not about to let this story repeat itself in Alaska, nor should you. If the mine is developed, future generations will inherit its legacy, and I predict they won’t look upon us fondly for repeating the same mistakes that killed salmon runs in the past.

Please comment during the scoping period on the Army Corps of Engineers’ Pebble Mine Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and send those comments to your congressional representatives as well. Below you’ll find my scoping comments for the proposed mine. Feel free to copy and personalize them as you see fit. State your concerns now, so when the Army Corps of Engineers writes the EIS it will fully evaluate the mine’s impacts. Don’t let Bristol Bay’s salmon disappear because of our lust for copper and money.

The Corps is accepting comments through June 29, 2018.

salmon jumping at waterfall

Comment to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (submitted May 23, 2018):

The proposed Pebble Mine and its associated infrastructure poses a substantial threat to salmon and wildlife across the Bristol Bay region. Pebble Mine will straddle the watershed divide between two of Bristol Bay’s most important salmon spawning and rearing areas. I remain very concerned with the mine’s potential to negatively impact the area’s fisheries and wildlife through its wastewater, tailings, and infrastructure.

The EIS must answer one question: can Pebble Mine be developed without significantly degrading water quality and fisheries? The Corps’ has authority to deny permits under section 404 of the Clean Water Act if a proposed action will significantly degrade water quality and fisheries. This EIS should evaluate and quantify, not just identify, the mine’s potential to significantly degrade water quality and fisheries over short and long-term timespans. The EIS can begin this evaluation by appropriately defining its purpose.

A recent environmental impact statement from the Army Corps of Engineers, the Donlin Mine EIS, merely stated the purpose of the mine and the Corps’ authority to permit it (Donlin Mine Final Environmental Impact Statement – Chapter 1, pg. 1-4, 1-6). The purpose and need of the Pebble Mine EIS should be not be to simply define the project’s purpose (to mine ore) and define the Corps’ regulatory authority. It should be, as I propose, to:

  • Identify the short-term and long-term ecological effects of the proposed Pebble Mine,
  • Evaluate the mine’s and its infrastructure’s impacts on wildlife, including fish, in order to
  • Determine whether the mine’s safeguard can prevent all degradation to water quality, salmon habitat, and wildlife habitat indefinitely.

Even at very low concentrations, dissolved copper is particularly toxic to salmon, interfering with their ability to navigate and avoid predators. Its effects can manifest over minutes or hours and persist for weeks (Hecht 2007). Can the mine’s wastewater treatment plan adequately remove dissolved copper and prevent it from entering the watershed?

The mine’s tailings also pose a great risk to fish. Any accidental discharge from the pyritic tailings ponds will significantly degrade salmon habitat. Open pit mines, even within the United States, have a poor record containing their toxic tailings. Most tailings dam failures occur at operating mines and 39 percent of such failures worldwide occur in the United States, significantly more than in any other country (Rico 2008). Earthquakes and flooding hazards increase the risk of a tailings pond dam failure in the Bristol Bay region, and tailings ponds cannot be drained in the event of flooding or dam failure due to their toxic contents. The probability of a M8+ earthquake, for example, is low from year to year but remains real at any given time. Therefore, the EIS must also evaluate whether the tailings ponds can be engineered to withstand the greatest potential earthquakes and floods expected over the next several thousand years.

After the mine’s 20-year active phase, the mining company proposes to store toxic pyritic tailings indefinitely under water in the former open pit. This seems to create the potential for acid mine drainage to leach into the watershed over hundreds or thousands of years. What geologic studies suggest this is a feasible long-term plan to store the tailings? Even if subaqueous storage in the former open pit prevents the tailings from oxidizing, what safeguards will prevent dissolved copper and other toxic metals from entering groundwater to eventually oxidize and acidify as it nears the surface in a different part of the watershed?

The mine’s supporting infrastructure also creates risks for salmon and wildlife. Although salmon can navigate and migrate through streams with high sediment loads, they do not spawn in these habitats. Erosion of sediments into streams can irritate the gills of fish, smother eggs, alter feeding habitat for salmon fry, and bury spawning habitat. The effects of road construction and vehicle traffic (estimated by the mining partnership to be 35 round-trip truck trips per day) on wetlands and fisheries should also be evaluated.

The road servicing the proposed Amakdedori Port and the port itself will fragment what is now an unspoiled region of coastline on Cook Inlet. McNeil River State Game Sanctuary is one of the most important brown bear refuges on Earth, home to the largest annual congregation of bears yet observed. The road and port have the potential to displace bears moving to and from the McNeil River and Katmai National Preserve areas. Frequent work and dredging at the port area will also displace wildlife in an area that now experiences very little human activity. Other alternatives to transport ore should be evaluated.

Finally, the EIS needs to address more than the 20-year operational phase, because the mine’s waste legacy will threaten salmon for thousands of years. Tailings stored in the former open pit won’t become benign in the near future and wastewater must be treated indefinitely. Also, the possibility of an expanded mine operating over a long time frame increases the threat to salmon, other wildlife, and clean water.

Combined, the Nushagak and Kvichak rivers support about 40% of Bristol Bay’s sockeye salmon. In 2017 alone, over 56 million sockeye salmon returned to Bristol Bay and over 19 million returning to Nushagak River, the largest in the river’s history. Salmon fishing in Bristol Bay is a billion dollar industry. While commercial fisheries generate the bulk of the salmon’s economic value, the area’s tourism is almost entirely based on salmon as well. Bristol Bay is home to dozens of premier sport fishing destinations, which harbor abundant populations of rainbow trout, Dolly Varden, arctic char, northern pike, lake trout, and grayling. The Bristol Bay area also hosts some of the densest populations of brown bears ever measured. Salmon are the most important food source for these animals, and the vast majority of people who visit Katmai National Park come to watch brown bears (Strawn 2015). After spawning, dead salmon fertilize the ecosystem with nutrients derived from the ocean, boosting the productivity of otherwise nutrient-poor area.

Considering the overwhelming economic and ecological value of salmon to the Bristol Bay region, Pebble Mine could displace thousands of workers and tourists if its safeguards fail to protect salmon. Without the energy and nutrients provided by consistently large runs of anadromous salmon, Bristol Bay’s freshwater and terrestrial ecosystems will quickly transition from one of richness to poverty. In many ways, this cycle is a positive feedback loop. The productivity of the area is reliant on large runs of salmon.

We’ve seen, repeatedly, salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest and New England decimated by habitat loss and pollution. Now we’re on the brink of repeating the same mistake in Bristol Bay. Pebble Mine should not be developed. It’s in the greatest interest of Bristol Bay’s fishing industry and culture, watersheds, salmon, and wildlife for the Corps’ EIS to fully evaluate the mine’s near and long-term effects. A failure to contain the mine’s toxic tailings and wastewater would directly impact two of Earth’s most productive salmon producing watersheds. The EIS must address potential groundwater exchange in the abandoned open pit, and whether the mining company can eliminate the risk of acid mine drainage. It must address whether the embankments for tailings ponds can withstand high magnitude earthquakes. It must address whether it’s even appropriate to build a mine whose wastewater will need to be treated indefinitely. It also must critically evaluate the mine’s supporting infrastructure, as it will potentially disrupt the world’s largest seasonal congregation of brown bears. In sum, the EIS must evaluate a worst-case scenario for salmon and other wildlife, since the possibility can’t be completely, or even reasonably, eliminated.

References:

Hecht, S. A., et al. March 2007. An overview of sensory effects on juvenile salmonids exposed to dissolved copper: Applying a benchmark concentration approach to evaluate sub-lethal neurobehavioral toxicity. National Marine Fisheries Service.

Rico, M., et al. 2008. Reported tailings dam failures: A review of the European incidents in the worldwide context. Journal of Hazardous Materials 152: 846–852.

Schindler D. E., et al. 2003. Pacific salmon and the ecology of coastal ecosystems. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 1(1): 31–37.

Strawn, M. and Y. Le. 2015. Katmai National Park & Preserve Visitor Study: Summer 2014. Social and Economic Sciences Research Center, Washington State University, Pullman, WA.

 

Addendum: My comment was apparently too long for the Corps’ comment portal on the Pebble EIS website. So if you use my comment in full, you might receive an error message. To work around it, you can attach the full comment as a PDF or Word document.

The Worst Place in the World for a Mine

“This is the jewel in the crown of America’s fisheries resources – these salmon. If you don’t think this is worth saving, what is? To me, if you don’t draw a line in the sand here, there’s none to be drawn anywhere.”

Thomas Quinn
Professor, University of Washington and author of The Behavior and Ecology of Pacific Salmon and Trout

After more than a decade of controversy, Pebble Mine is inching closer to reality, and from the perspective of salmon, we couldn’t choose a worse place for an open pit mine.

red salmon swimming in shallow water

If you’re unfamiliar with Bristol Bay, its salmon, or Pebble Mine, please watch this 2012 overview on the Pebble Mine controversy, keeping in mind the mine’s currently proposed size and mineral processing plans are different than those outlined in the video.

Pebble Mine is a proposed open-pit copper, gold, and molybdenum mine at the headwaters of some of the last intact and most productive salmon habitat on Earth. Before any development of the mine can begin however, it must be permitted, and before it can be permitted, it must undergo an extensive environmental review. This is where we stand currently: the environmental impact statement (EIS) process for Pebble Mine has begun.

An EIS goes through several stages before a “record of decision” is finalized. Right now, the Pebble EIS is only at the scoping level. If you’re unfamiliar with the EIS process, public scoping is basically a brainstorming step. It’s the public’s opportunity to help define the breadth of the EIS to the lead agency, which in this case is the Army Corps of Engineers. (Read more about the scoping process.) During public scoping, if people don’t express concerns for the ecosystem-wide impacts of Pebble Mine and its infrastructure then the Corps’ EIS will not address them. Therefore, we must comment during the scoping period and demand that the alternatives in the EIS address the mine’s full environmental impact—which will sprawl across southwest Alaska and threaten the last great sockeye salmon run in North America.

The Bristol Bay area is exceptionally special and unique. Its landscape remains largely undeveloped and un-engineered. The major factors that decimated salmon elsewhere—habitat loss, dams, and pollution—are absent and salmon runs reach tens of millions of fish annually. Bristol Bay is where we can imagine the richness of fish that used to flood into the Columbia River or New England. It remains home to one of the most valuable and sustainable fisheries on Earth, one of the few remaining places where the full potential of the ecosystem is realized.

salmon jumping at waterfall

Salmon fishing boats in Naknek

Salmon fishing boats sit idle on a late winter day in Naknek, Alaska. The 2017 Bristol Bay salmon harvest was worth $670 million.

The Pebble EIS must address the mine’s potential, worst-case scenario effects on Bristol Bay’s salmon. A failure to contain the mine’s toxic tailings and wastewater would directly impact two of Earth’s most productive salmon producing watersheds. (The Kvichak River watershed, where part of the mine will be located, is home to the single largest salmon run in the world.) It must address potential groundwater exchange in the abandoned open pit, and whether the mining company can eliminate the risk of acid mine drainage. It must address whether the embankments for tailings ponds can withstand high magnitude earthquakes. It must address whether it’s even appropriate to build a mine whose wastewater will need to be treated indefinitely. It also must critically evaluate the mine’s supporting infrastructure, as it will potentially disrupt the world’s largest seasonal congregation of brown bears.

Map outlining Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds. Red star marks location of Pebble Mine.

Pebble Mine will straddle the divide between the Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds, two of Bristol Bay’s riches salmon producing areas.

By law, the EIS process must identify the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative. Common sense implies the least damaging alternative in this case is no mine at all, but the National Environmental Policy Act does not require agencies implement it. If we don’t demand the Corps critically evaluate the myriad impacts from the mine, then the Corps will merely focus on holes in the ground, “alternatives” of natural gas versus diesel to power the mine, how wide the service roads will be, and the size of the ports. The scope of the EIS will be so narrow to be useless for the protection of salmon. (For an idea of what this might be, look no further than the Donlin Mine Final EIS, whose purpose and need is: “produce gold from ore reserves from the Donlin deposit using mining processes, infrastructure, logistics, and energy supplies that are economical and feasible for application in remote western Alaska. The applicant’s stated need for the project is to provide economic benefits to Donlin Gold, Calista, and TKC shareholders; and to produce gold to meet worldwide demand.”)

I recognize a sad irony—or hypocrisy, if you prefer—of using a computer, which contains gold and copper, to type this post. I understand there’s a hole in the Earth, perhaps filled now with toxic water, where the metals in my machine were once trapped in rock. If you, like me, think Pebble Mine is irresponsible, then voice your opposition not only through the EIS process and with your votes at the ballot box (politicians who support Pebble Mine will not receive my vote), but also by reducing your consumption of products that use gold and copper. We, as consumers, need to say enough is enough. Our addiction to ever-higher levels of consumption brought us here. It’s not really sufficient to say “I’m opposed to Pebble Mine” then go out and buy the newest iPhone even though your old phone works just fine.

Everything we use, everything we make, has a cost. We’re at a point in history when surging human population growth and mass consumption are pushing ecosystems and species to their breaking point, creating an ecologically impoverished planet. In New England, wild Atlantic salmon are nearly extinct, and on the U.S. west coast only a tiny fraction of Pacific salmon return compared to historic levels. Don’t kid yourself: This sad story can repeat itself in Alaska.

We lose salmon one impassible culvert, one dam, one levee, one mine at a time, leaving us to suddenly wonder, where did all the fish go? In Bristol Bay we have a chance, maybe our last chance, to save large runs of wild salmon. If the mine is built and its proposed safeguards fail, we risk losing a significant portion one of the world’s last great sustainable fisheries. Future generations won’t be celebrating our decision if we develop this mine. They’ll criticize us for not learning from the mistakes of the past. Are we really willing to let hyper-consumerism and the promise of short-term profits potentially destroy the last great salmon run?

It looks like we’re on track to do so, unless enough people step up and say no.

Through June 29, 2018, you can submit scoping comments on the Pebble Mine EIS. I’ll share my scoping comments in a forthcoming post when they are finished.

Update May 23, 2018: My scoping comments can be found here.

Brooks River Water Temperature

Alaska is often described as a cold place, and justifiably so. Winters are long. Summer temperatures, especially on the Alaska Peninsula, are often damp and cool. It’s easy to imagine Brooks River’s water as bone-chillingly cold. But, just how cold is the water in Brooks River, the scene of bearcam? Brooks River is never very warm, but its temperature varies more than you might think. These temperature shifts can impact spawning salmon, but salmon are adapted to avoid the risk.

Staff from the National Park Service’s Southwest Alaska Network are tasked with monitoring the long term water quality in Katmai. During the summer, they install a data logger at the outlet of Lake Brooks where it drains into Brooks River to record water temperature. When the water temperature data is compiled into a graph, it displays quite a bit of variability.

Graph of water temperatures at the head of Brooks River. Verticle axis is degees in fahrenheit. Horizontal axis is time.

This graph plots water temperatures for the head of Brooks River from mid June to late August 2015. The blue line is a daily average of hourly temperature readings. The horizontal red, yellow, and orange lines represent State of Alaska water temperature threshold standards for fish habitat. Data courtesy of the National Park Service Southwest Alaska Network.

During the height of summer, Brooks River’s temperatures can rise well into the 60˚s F (15-20˚ C). Temperatures also drop rapidly, sometimes as much as ten to fifteen degrees in a few days. The maximum temperature recorded in 2015 was 69 °F (21˚ C) on August 2 at 5 p.m. and the minimum temperature was 44 °F (6.7˚ C) on July 5 at 8 a.m. What explains this variability?

Weather and the underwater topography of Lake Brooks drive the rise and fall of the river’s temperature in summer. Brooks River drains Lake Brooks, a large glacially carved basin. Lake Brooks is filled with crystal clear water, and most of the lake is very cold so we could expect Brooks River to remain cold too if it weren’t for a shallow shelf of sediment extending a few hundred yards offshore from the lake’s northeastern shoreline. Over the shelf, the water is only a few feet deep at most.

Screen shot from Google Earth. Text on page reads "Lake Brooks" and "Beginning of Brooks River." Eye altitude is 4623 feet.

Near the head of Brooks River, a shelf of sediment extends far out into Lake Brooks. In this Google Earth image, the shelf is outlined in blue.

view of lake and mountain

Brooks River begins at the northeast corner of Lake Brooks. The beginning of the river can be seen at center right.

When summer’s long days (Katmai experiences almost 19 hours of daylight at the summer solstice) combine with stretches of clear and sunny weather, the water above this shelf is warmed considerably. When cool, cloudy weather covers the region, the water over the shelf drops in temperature. Wind across Lake Brooks can also help stir the lake, perhaps even breaking the thermocline between warm water on the surface and the cold water underneath. Even a rough comparison of weather and the river’s water temperature shows a clear correlation.

Water temperature graph (top) and weather data graph (bottom).

On the weather graph (bottom), the red line represents the daily maximum temperature, the blue line represents the daily minimum temperature, and the green line represents the dew point. Peaks in the river’s water temperatures roughly correspond with long stretches of warm weather. Weather data graph courtesy of wunderground.com.

While warmer water temperatures may not affect bears, salmon are sensitive to it. If water temperatures exceed certain limits, then dissolved oxygen levels in the water can drop, increasing mortality rates for adults salmon, fry, and eggs, or altering the timing of migration and spawning. Importantly, water temperature drives incubation time for salmon eggs. Incubation rates for salmon eggs are slower in cold water and faster in warmer water. If the sockeye salmon in Brook River spawned in July, for example, then warmer water would decrease the incubation period for the newly spawned eggs, potentially causing them to hatch too early when no food is available for the fry. These temperatures would also increase egg mortality. Sockeye and coho salmon egg survival plummets when water temperatures reach 14˚C (57˚ F). (See pages 9-15 in ADF&G’s Technical Report 91-1).

Vertical axis represents survival % from 0-100. Horizontal axis represents temperture in degrees Celcius from 0-15. Caption on figure reads "Figure 8. Survival of coho and sockeye salmon eggs from Fertilizations to hatching at different temperatures. Data from Murray and McPhail (1988).

This graph displays sockeye and coho egg mortality compared to water temperature. Graph courtesy of the Alaska Department of Fish of Game.

The sockeye salmon that spawn in Brooks River avoid this risk by delaying their spawning until late August and September. Notice how water temperature on the graph plateaus then begins to decrease by the end of August.

Graph of water temperatures for Brooks River in August 2015. Verticle axis is degees in fahrenheit. Horizontal axis is time.

By late summer, day length has shortened by many hours. With less sunlight available to warm the water near the outlet of Lake Brooks, temperatures eventually dip well within ideal thresholds for spawning and egg incubation. The river’s salmon take advantage of these conditions by delaying their spawning until late summer and fall when cooler water temperatures, which continue to drop as fall wanes into winter, slow the salmon eggs’ incubation time. They don’t hatch until very late winter, and the fry don’t emerge from the stream gravel until spring when water temperatures begin to rise again and more sunlight supports more plankton, which feed the young salmon.

Brooks River is a dynamic place. No one week, no one year is the same as the last. Salmon, at least genetically, understand this. They “know” spawning in July would be risky business and probably unsuccessful. Their spawning cycle is timed to avoid the warmest and most variable water temperatures. In this way, every year, Brooks River’s salmon demonstrate their adaptation to variable conditions.

school of salmon in water with lake and mountains in background

On Election Day, Vote to #ActOnClimate

When I think about how climate change may impact my home and the people and places I care about one example resonates strongly with me.

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Sockeye salmon jump at Brooks Falls.

When I lived in southwest Alaska, I marveled at the return of sockeye salmon each summer. These extraordinary fish endure weeks, even months without food after they reenter freshwater. Instincts and memory drive them upstream to conditions they cannot know until they get there. Finally, they sacrifice their lives to reproduce. Salmon are Katmai’s keystone, yet climate change may threaten these fish that sustain so much of the region’s ecology and economy.

Ocean acidification is a by-product of climate change. Not all the CO2 we pump into the atmosphere stays there. Plants use it during photosynthesis and the oceans absorb it. At first glance, the ocean’s capacity to absorb CO2 seems like a good thing, because less CO2 will be in the atmosphere to trap heat.

In the ocean however, high concentrations of CO2 impact the base of the food web through a process of ocean acidification. H2O plus CO2 forms a weak acid, H2CO3, also known as carbonic acid. In ocean water, carbonic acid makes the water more acidic by releasing a hydrogen ion, which combines with carbonate ions, CO32 to form bicarbonate molecules (read more about the chemistry involved).

Ocean water is normally supersaturated in carbonate, which many species of plankton need to build and maintain their shells. When ocean water becomes more acidic, less carbonate is available for certain algae and animals grow and maintain calcified shells. Calcium minerals used in shell building dissolve in acid, even weak acids like carbonic acid (that’s how most limestone caves are formed), so if you’re a tiny bit of plankton then a small dip in pH can have dramatic affects on your shell.

Plankton are the foundation of marine food webs in many parts of the worlds, including the North Pacific. In one experiment pteropod shells dissolved when placed in sea water with pH and carbonate levels projected for year 2100.  Pteropods are eaten by everything from krill to salmon to whales. If we continue to pump CO2 into the atmosphere at current rates, not only will the climate warm, but the oceans will acidify further. (More info on ocean acidification including a great series of photos demonstrating the effects of carbonic acid on pteropods can be found on NOAA’s ocean acidification page.)

How would a decline in marine plankton affect Katmai’s terrestrial world? Follow the food chain. Ocean acidification impacts the base of the food chain. More acidic oceans can mean less food for salmon. Sockeye salmon primarily eat aquatic invertebrates while they travel the open ocean. When they return to fresh water, salmon feed Katmai’s wolves, bears, trout, char, even plants. Katmai’s world famous bears are adaptable enough to survive dramatic climate shifts, but only if they have adequate habitat to adjust. Adequate habitat means food. Without large runs of salmon, bear densities in Katmai would plummet. The gathering of bears at Brooks Falls will become a memory and Bristol Bay’s economy, based on the salmon fishery and salmon based tourism (sport fishing and wildlife viewing) would collapse.

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Salmon are the most important food source for Katmai’s bears.

In a few more years, maybe it’ll be easier to grow tomatoes in Anchorage, but climate change’s worldwide consequences outweigh any potential benefits. Climate change is one of the greatest issues humanity faces, and if left unmitigated it may exacerbate every other environmental issue. Climate change is real and humans are forcing Earth’s climate to warm. That’s not political, it’s scientific fact.

Politics though drives efforts to mitigate climate change. Voters can make an impact this fall. For example, I got Washington’s Voter’s Pamphlet in the mail recently, and discovered Initiative 732 on the ballot.

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“This measure would impose a carbon emission tax on certain fossil fuels and fossil-fuel-generated electricity, reduce the sales tax one percentage point and increase a low-income exemption, and reduce certain manufacturing taxes.”

This initiative is modeled after British Columbia’s similar carbon tax. Turns out, that the tax was effective without slowing economic growth. However, some environmental groups oppose the initiative. While they may have legitimate concerns, we no longer have time to wait for something better. We’ve waited far too long to address climate change. This situation reminds me of the debate over the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), which permanently protect millions of acres of land in Alaska. The final version of ANILCA didn’t give environmental groups everything they wanted, but it gave Americans a whole hell of a lot.

We didn’t have time to waste with ANILCA and we don’t have time to waste on climate change. It’s time for all of us to step up and sacrifice a bit for the future. I’m glad to see to that Washington voters are considering taking action to help mitigate climate change. I voted early and I voted yes on Initiative 732. If you live in Washington, I think you should as well. Wherever you live, vote for candidates who will take action on climate. I vote #ActOnClimate. I do it for salmon, bears, and people everywhere.

For more information on climate change science: You can read the climate change chapter I wrote for Katmai’s Interpretation Training Manual, available for free from Earth To Sky’s website. Also check out Skeptical Science, one of the best climate science website I’ve found.