On January 30, 2023, after a hard-won fight that stretched across nearly two decades, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued its 404(c) clean water act veto – effectively ending the threat of the potentially devastating effects of the Pebble Mine on Bristol Bay in southwest Alaska. The announcement follows a long, impassioned campaign led by Tribes in the region, and supported by Alaskans throughout the state.
The Moore Foundation has supported efforts to protect North Pacific wild salmon ecosystems, including Bristol Bay since 2001. This ruling helps to ensure the survival of this critical economic and environmental resource.
“We are grateful the EPA has heard and honored the will of the Tribes, commercial and sport fishers, and many other Alaskans who have fought for nearly 20 years to protect the region’s unique way of life.”
Aileen Lee, chief of programs, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.
Brown bear catching salmon in the stream; Bristol Bay. Image credit: Michael Webster.
Bristol Bay: An ecosystem of abundance
Wild salmon are the lifeblood of Bristol Bay. For thousands of years, the salmon have thrived under the guardianship of the region’s Indigenous peoples, sustaining vibrant cultural and subsistence traditions. And in recent years, the region’s abundant salmon runs have supported billions in economic harvest benefits while also returning to the region’s pristine rivers in sufficient numbers to sustain thriving populations of brown bears, rainbow trout, and other wildlife.
Today, the area provides more than 15,000 jobs, ensuring the livelihood of thousands of families. And the nearly 80 million sockeye salmon that returned to the Bay and its rivers in 2022 helped to feed Americans from coast to coast.
But 20 years ago, the proposed Pebble Mine put Bristol Bay – and everyone and everything connected to it – in jeopardy.
Beautiful Bristol Bay landscape of the water, trees, mountain and sky. Image Credit: United Tribes of Bristol Bay.
An existential threat
In 2001, the public learned that a mining company planned to build the biggest open-pit mine in North America at the Bristol Bay headwaters. The mine would have generated billions of tons of waste that would have posed a significant threat to salmon runs and the survival of Bristol Bay tribal communities – putting their sustenance, livelihood, and culture at risk.
One thing that set this effort apart was the diverse set of allies who came together, unified by their desire to protect the region’s world-renowned salmon ecosystem: the tribes, commercial fishermen, sportfishing and recreational businesses, and other Alaskans inspired by their love for Bristol Bay. As Alannah Hurley, executive director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, said at a media briefing after the EPA announced its decision, “Our ancestral responsibility to safeguard our watershed and fishery has united all of us in our work to defend the world’s last great wild salmon fishery. Today’s announcement is historic progress towards that goal.”
Community group photo of United Tribes of Bristol Bay. Image credit: United Tribes of Bristol Bay.
“This campaign broke the mold,” said Lee. “It brought together environmental conservationists as well as businesses, republicans as well as democrats. It was about protecting Bristol Bay for Alaskans, by Alaskans – of all walks of life.”
Now that the EPA has made its decision, those who have spent years campaigning and protecting Bristol Bay are breathing sighs of relief.
“After decades of working toward this win, such good news is thrilling ,” said Lee. “We are grateful for the leadership of the Tribes, and for the many communities, groups, and individuals who joined the fight and made the protection of Bristol Bay a reality.”
A coalition of champions for Bristol Bay speak out to thank the EPA. (poster image below)
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