Bristol Bay, Alaska, is the address millions of sockeye salmon come back to every year. After spending time in the North Pacific and Bering Sea, they migrate back to their place of birth to spawn.
Bristol Bay, Alaska, will also be the address of the largest open pit mine in North America, if mining corporations Anglo American PLC and Northern Dynasty Minerals get their way.
But sharing is not an option: it has to be one or the other.
Spawning sockeye salmon. Photo by Ben Knight.
Scene from ‘Red Gold’, an award-winning documentary on the fight to keep Bristol Bay as pristine as it still is:
‘Do we want the mine?’ asks a campaigner during a rally.
‘No!’ reply those attending.
‘Not No. Hell, No!’
Local Alaskans greet Anglo American's president of the board of directors in Dillingham, AK. Photo by Matt Davidson.
Hell, No! it is then. Bristol Bay communities are campaigning against the proposed Pebble copper and gold mine; they ask Anglo American’s CEO Cynthia Carroll to keep her promise, quoting her as saying ‘I will not go where people don’t want us. I just won’t. We’ve got enough on our plate without having communities against us.’
Surveys show that 80 per cent of the Bay’s residents are against the mine, but Anglo American is not backing off. What about the other 20 per cent, I ask Lydia Olympic, tribal advocate from the village of Igiugig in southwestern Alaska. ‘They work for the companies,’ she says. ‘You have to understand: we don’t want the mine!’
The issues at stake are serious. Open-pit mines are notorious for their leaks, spills and waste, and subsequent ecological damage. Excavating the ore deposit, situated right beneath the salmon spawning territory, would destroy the whole habitat.
It would be yet another crime against nature.
This would not only mean the end of the centuries-long way of life for local people, who are highly dependent on subsistence fishing for survival, but also implications for many salmon-eaters (the UK is one of the largest consumers of canned Alaskan salmon).
Lydia Olympic hangs fish in Igiugig. Photo by Ben Knight.
Bristol Bay campaigners have gathered support from various groups, chefs and retailers. In an encouraging move this week, fifty of the world’s leading jewelers pledged not to use gold from the Pebble mine, if it is ever built.
Bobby Andrew, subsistence hunter and fisher and spokesperson for Nunamta Aulukestai, an association of eight Alaska Native villages, says they are not against mining as such. ‘But it is the wrong place to do it.’
Unsurprisingly, the mining companies argue that the mine would provide full-time jobs for local community. Lydia is not compromising: ‘But we have jobs already!’ The mine is not sustainable, she says, whereas fishing in Bristol Bay is. ‘We’re not greedy, crazy people,’ adds Everett Thompson, driftnet fisher. ‘We need continuous existence, not short-term gains.’
What about the claims that the mine would bring development to the community? ‘I live 100 miles from the proposed mine site. They say they spent $300 million so far, but I haven’t seen a single dollar in the community, nor do I want it,’ replies Bobby.
Is this the first time Bristol Bay communities are standing up against corporate greed? ‘The second,’ says Lydia. ‘The first one was against offshore oil and gas drilling.’
But what if the mine gets a go-ahead anyway? ‘It won’t. It won’t!’