'Deadliest Catch' skipper slams Pebble project

AD CAMPAIGN: Sig Hansen says he's concerned about impacting the Bristol Bay salmon fishery.

May 19, 2009 

Perhaps the most famous crab boat captain in America -- in the spotlight because of his recurring role in the "Deadliest Catch" cable TV reality show -- has taken a public stand against the proposed Pebble mine.

Since 2005, Discovery Channel crews have followed Sig Hansen and the crew of his 125-foot vessel, the Northwestern, for the Bering Sea's dangerous crab seasons.

Now, Hansen and his crew are starring in the print and TV ads against Pebble, a giant copper and gold mineral prospect in Southwest Alaska. The ads, paid for by the Renewable Resources Coalition, an anti-Pebble nonprofit in Anchorage, are already running in some Alaska magazines and are pegged to run on statewide TV later this year.

Eventually, conservation groups hope to target a national audience with the "Deadliest Catch" ads, said Lindsay Bloom, who works for Trout Unlimited, another nonprofit group that opposes Pebble. Bloom, a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman, set up the ad shoot.

Companies that hope to develop Pebble into a world-class mine also recently began running prime-time TV ads, aimed at calming fears about the controversial prospect, which could become the state's largest mine.

London-based Anglo American, the mining giant that is pumping millions of dollars into Pebble, has said repeatedly that it won't develop a mine that hurts fisheries or wildlife in Alaska. Pebble holds an estimated hundreds of billions of dollars worth of copper and gold upstream from Bristol Bay, and it could provide hundreds of jobs, but some are opposed to building the mine because of its massive size and location near rich salmon habitat.

Both sides are striving to swing public opinion with ads, public meetings and Internet sites promoting or criticizing the Pebble project.

NOT A GREENIE?

It's unusual for a "Deadliest Catch" crew member to take a hard stance in a big Alaska resource battle like Pebble. Hansen, who lives in Seattle, said he usually shies away from requests to get involved in anything political.

Because Hansen exploits crab stocks and other Alaska fisheries, he said, he can't be opposed to all resource development.

"I'm not your typical greenie," Hansen said.

For example, he supports offshore oil drilling in the Bering Sea if it can be done safely, he said.

Last year, a crabber testified in Congress against the drilling.

"We're turning more and more into these public figures," Hansen said.

He's persuaded that Pebble can't be done safely. If a development has "the potential to destroy a resource as delicate as the salmon, you've got to draw the line somewhere," he said in a recent interview.

Why do he and his crew care about Bristol Bay salmon? When they aren't fishing for crab, they chase salmon, often in Bristol Bay, he said.

Hansen said he has spent summers working in the bay's fisheries off and on since he was a teenager. He routinely runs a salmon tender boat for Trident Seafoods, a major seafood processor, in the bay, though he's going to Southeast Alaska instead this year.

In one print ad, Hansen and his five crew members are pictured sitting in front of their crab boat in Dutch Harbor. "We don't mind crab fishing in the dead of winter in the Bering Sea, but there's no way we'd take the risk of developing Pebble Mine," the text reads.

The mining companies pursuing Pebble view the ad campaign with dismay.

"The ad itself is a little unfortunate in that it continues to prey on the fears that this project pits fishing against mining," said Mike Heatwole, spokesman for the companies.

BACKLASH

While many Bristol Bay fishing vessels carry "No Pebble Mine" signs, not all commercial fishermen in the region are outright opposed to Pebble.

One Bristol Bay commercial fisherman who strongly disagrees with Hansen -- at least until new information comes out from Pebble studies -- is Brad Angasan of South Naknek.

He said he is watching some Bristol Bay communities dwindle due to the lack of village jobs, and he sees Pebble as a possible savior.

"Fishing doesn't make up my entire livelihood. I have to have another job," Angasan said.

"What's the greater good here? An industry that supports a fraction of my community, or the very existence of my community?" he said.

"I'm not telling (Hansen's) people ... what's good for the Bering Sea crab industry. I wish those people would do the same for us," Angasan said.

Like Hansen, Angasan has starred in some Pebble ads.

Those ads, featuring some Bristol Bay commercial fishermen, ran on TV and in print a few years ago and were paid for by Northern Dynasty Minerals, Anglo's partner in the Pebble project.

The ads promoted suspending judgment on the proposed mine until after companies finish their studies and submit their development plans for state and federal approval. That's a theme repeated in the latest ad campaign from Pebble's backers.

Pebble officials said in March that they plan to complete a preliminary study this year to determine whether a mine might be feasible. They said they hope to start seeking development permits next year, a process that could take several years.


Find Elizabeth Bluemink online at adn.com/contact/ebluemink or call 257-4317.

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