Fisheries advocacy can be a hard and, at times, seemingly hopeless slog. Too many times, we put in hours—or, in many cases, years—trying to move the management process forward, only to find that our efforts seemed futile.
Sometimes, contrary to science and public opinion, we see the short-term thinkers win, as current landings and current income are deemed more important than the future of a particular stock of fish.
Sometimes, we try to push the process forward, only to see backward-looking managers cling to the paradigms of a forever-gone past, forcing us to rearrange our thinking until, when things don’t get any worse, we can still view it as some kind of win.
Do that for enough years, and it can’t do anything but begin to erode your resolve, and get you thinking that if you never seem to win, maybe there’s no point in keeping up the fight.
These days, I hear that a lot with striped bass, particularly after the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s adoption of Addendum VI to Amendment 6 to the Atlantic Striped Bass Interstate Fishery Management Plan which, largely because of concessions made to New Jersey and Maryland, is more likely to fail than succeed, and contains no clear plan for rebuilding the striped bass stock—even though Amendment 6 to the management plan clearly states that the ASMFC’s Atlantic Striped Bass Management Board “must” rebuild the stock within 10 years, once it becomes overfished.
I know quite a few striped bass fishermen who tell me that they don’t even know whether it’s worth trying to affect the direction of the upcoming Amendment 7 to the striped bass management. Because, they say, they know that the ASMFC is more interested in killing fish and maximizing current profits than in conserving fish and providing for a healthy and abundant stock in the future, so why waste time pretending otherwise?
And given the ASMFC’s record so far, it’s hard to provide any examples that support an opposing view.
So instead I just tell them that the battle isn’t over, and that the only time that you truly lose is the day that you lay down and stop fighting. So long as you fight, you have hope.
So what does that have to do with Bristol Bay, it’s salmon, and the infamous Pebble Mine?
In fact, quite a bit.
For those who aren’t completely familiar with what’s going on in Bristol Bay, here’s a quick primer:
Bristol Bay is a nearly pristine waterway, fed by a system of rivers that host runs of all five species of Alaskan salmon, including the world’s largest run of wild sockeye. And all of those salmon are completely wild; not a single hatchery scars the watershed’s shores.
“The Bristol Bay watershed provides habitat for numerous animal species, including 29 fishes, more than 190 birds, and more than 40 terrestrial mammals. Chief among these resources is a world-class commercial and sport fishery for Pacific salmon and other important resident fishes. The watershed supports production of all five species of Pacific salmon found in North America: sockeye, coho, Chinook, chum, and pink.
“…the Bristol Bay watershed supports the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the world, with approximately 46% of the average global abundance of wild sockeye salmon…
“The Alaska Native cultures present in the Nushagak River and Kvichak River watersheds—the Yup’ik and Denna’ina—are two of the last intact, sustainable salmon-based cultures in the world. Salmon are integral to the entire way of life in these cultures as subsistence food and as the foundation of their language, spirituality, and social structure…
“These cultures have a strong relationship to the landscape and its resources. In the Bristol Bay watershed, this connection has been maintained for at least the past 4,000 years and is in part due to and responsible for the pristine condition of the region’s landscape and its biological resources…”
“The Bristol Bay watershed supports several economic sectors that are wilderness-compatible and sustainable:
· commercial, sport and subsistence fishing
· sport and subsistence hunting
· non-consumptive recreation (e.g. wildlife viewing and tourism)
Considering all these sectors, the ecological resources of the Bristol Bay watershed generated nearly $480 million in direct economic expenditures and sales in 2009, and provided employment for over 14,000 full- and part-time workers.”
It seems almost too good to be true: A pristine wilderness with abundant natural resources, that nonetheless generated 14,000 jobs and nearly half of a billion dollars in direct economic benefits each year.
Bristol Bay sounds like a model for economic development in a wilderness setting.
Unfortunately, good things never seem to last, and always end up being threatened.
In the case of Bristol Bay, that threat came in the form of the so-called Pebble Mine, a proposed open-pit mine that would gouge a hole a mile square and a third on a mile deep in what now is wilderness. The mine would consume 35,000,000,000 gallons of water each year, some taken from two nearby rivers, the rest from underground aquifers.
—perhaps from the Anchorage region.
Such development would clearly destroy the pristine wilderness of the Bristol Bay watershed, and poses an existential threat to the health of the Bay’s salmon runs and to the 14,000 jobs that the salmon and other natural resources of the Bay can provide year after year, the Pebble Mine is likely to provide only 1,000 jobs, and only for twenty-five years.
It’s hardly surprising that most Alaska residents, and a large majority of the residents of the Bristol Bay region, oppose the Pebble Mine.
Across the United States, people who understand what the Bristol Bay watershed offers, and the damage that mining there would do, have lined up to oppose the Pebble Mine.
The sportsman- and outdoor industry-oriented Save Bristol Bay effort has mobilized more than 250 businesses and advocacy groups, and 31,000 individuals, to ask President Trump to stop Pebble Mine. All of the major environmental organization have come out in opposition as well.
The fight intensified about fifteen years ago, and in March 2014, Gina McCarthy, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator appointed by President Barak Obama, invoked provisions of the Clean Water Act to place a hold on any development of the Pebble Mine, saying that
“Extensive scientific study has given us ample reason to believe that the Pebble Mine would likely have significant and irreversible negative impacts on the Bristol Bay watershed and its abundant salmon fisheries.”
Although Northern Dynasty Minerals, the Canadian corporation seeking to develop the Pebble Mine, sued the EPA in response, it appeared that the mine’s opponents had scored a major victory.
But President Trump was barely in office four months when, in May 2017, his new EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, reversed the Obama-era hold, and allowed the permitting process for the mine to continue.
Opponents of the Pebble Mine had their seeming victory stripped away, and were forced back into a fight that they had thought was largely over. And now they were fighting on unfavorable terrain, finding themselves arrayed not only against Northern Dynasty, but against a Trump administration, and an EPA Administrator, more concerned with exploiting and extracting natural resources than in protecting them.
After that, everything seemed to head steadily downhill.
In July 2019, the EPA formally reversed the Obama-era decision that the Pebble Mine would do irreversible harm to the Bristol Bay watershed and its salmon fishery, bringing the mine one step closer to development.
But the opponents of Bristol Bay hung tough, and continued to fight.
A year later—just a little over a month ago—the Army Corps of Engineers issued its final environmental impact statement finding--to no one’s great surprise, given the history of the Corps--that the Pebble Mine would remove 99 miles of fish habitat from the Bristol Bay watershed but, despite that, would not do significant harm to the watershed or to the salmon fishery.
The Corps went so far as to argue that some of Alaska’s other fisheries are conducted adjacent to various extractive industries, primarily oil and gas, and have not been harmed, noting that
“The Cook Inlet salmon fisheries exist in an active oil and gas basin and have developed headwaters of Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna areas. The Copper River salmon fishery occurs in a watershed with the remains of the historic Kennecott copper mine and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System in the headwaters of portions of the fishery. Both fisheries average higher prices per point [sic] that the Bristol Bay salmon fishery.”
Wilderness values were, of course, not an issue.
At that point, it seemed as if the Pebble Mine was unstoppable, unless litigation might block it, but going to court is always a crapshoot, and seen as a last resort.
Still, the opponents of the Pebble Mine kept fighting, kept asking for help, refused to surrender.
And a few weeks ago, something unexpected happened.
“As a sportsman who has spent plenty of time in the area, I agree 100%. The headwaters of Bristol Bay and the surrounding fishery are too unique and fragile to take any chances with.”
“Suddenly, you are seeing a number of Republicans, including some prominent ones, including some very conservative Republicans, saying, ‘Hold on a moment—maybe Pebble Mine is not a good idea. Maybe you should do whatever you can not to despoil nature…”
Of course, the mining folks are fighting back, with Tom Collier, CEO of the Pebble Partnership, trying to trivialize the opposition by saying
“There is a group of elitist sportsmen in America that want to keep Bristol Bay as their personal playground.”
(“Elitist sportsmen.” That’s a phrase that advocates of striped bass conservation might just have heard once or twice, cast in their direction. It seems that wherever you are, folks with no leg to stand on try to win fights the same way.)
Despite Coller’s comments, Pebble Mine opponents suddenly had reason to hope that, just maybe, their fight wasn’t in vain.
Yesterday, they got a bit more good news.
The New York Times reported that the Army Corps of Engineers has decided that the Pebble Mine does pose a threat to the Bristol Bay region, and that it won’t move forward unless and until additional mitigation measures are put in place. That decision will probably push the permitting process back into next year, when a new Administration, with different views on the value of wilderness, might be in charge.
But even that would provide a chance for the mine to move forward. POLITICO has reported even more encouraging news, saying that
“The Trump administration is planning to block the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska early next week, six people familiar with the plans told POLITICO, marking a surprise reversal that could be the death knell for the massive copper and gold project.
“…The people said they’re not entirely sure what form Trump’s disavowal will take, although they said it is more likely to come as a rejection of the Army Corps of Pebble’s water permits rather than a veto from EPA, which earlier this year said it would not exercise that power.”
But, in the end, the form doesn’t matter. Nor does it matter why Trump, who has always seemed deaf to conservation arguments, seems willing to take on Pebble Mine.
Maybe he’s doing it for his son. Maybe he’s doing it for other Republicans, who understand Bristol Bay’s value, or to placate important donors ahead of what promises to be a very expensive campaign. Maybe he wants some sort of pro-environment message that he can take into the Republican Party convention; it’s hard to find a better message than one that makes environmentalists happy, makes sportsmen happy, makes Alaskans happy, won’t harm a single American company, and will only hurt the business prospects of foreign mining interests. That sounds like a win for everyone.
Except, of course, for the Pebble Mine folks.
That’s why you can never stop fighting. Sometimes, the stars just align, and you catch a break.
I experienced the same sort of thing years ago, when we were trying to rein in a runaway commercial blackfish (tautog) fishery. Blackfish had been a low-value species, but after an ethnic live-fish market exploded in the northeast, live blackfish became a much in-demand, high-value item. The stock was crashing right before our eyes.
As usual, the ASMFC didn’t do anything, adopting half-measures and then delaying even their implementation in the face of political opposition. At the time, I belonged to a conservation group in New York that was trying to get the state to adopt significantly stricter regulations; while New York adopted a few stricter measures, opposition from the commercial and for-hire fleets kept it from doing enough.
Finally, we put together a bill and went to the state legislature, asking them to make it happen. If we got the bill through, commercial blackfishermen, which had no trip limit at all, would only be able to take 25 fish per day, and gill netting for them would be outlawed. It seemed like a Hail Mary pass, with virtually no chance of success.
But a friendly lawmaker took up the bill, and it just so happened that the Chair of the Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee liked to catch blackfish. So he got the bill through Committee and onto the Assembly floor. Support in the Senate wasn’t as strong, as commercial fishermen had a little more influence there.
But the Assembly committee chair liked to play bare-knuckle politics, and it just so happened that the Department of Environmental Conservation’s authority to regulate blackfish was expiring. Unless it was renewed, blackfish would not be regulated at all. So the Assembly made passage of the blackfish conservation bill a condition precedent to renewing the Department’s regulatory authority, both bills were passed, and the 25-fish trip limit remains on the books to this day.
So yes, the stars did align.
But for that to happen, we had to stay in the fight, even when the odds were against us.
I bring that up to give everyone hope, especially with the new striped bass amendment looming.
Things might not look too good right now. But when you keep fighting, sometimes unexpected things happen, and if you’re nimble enough to take advantage of them, you can unexpectedly win,
It happened with blackfish. It looks like it might happen in Bristol Bay.
It can happen with striped bass and bluefish, too.