Fisheries board: Bay protection warranted

PEBBLE MINE: Size of project, pollution problems elsewhere lead many to fear for salmon's welfare.

December 5, 2009 

The Alaska Board of Fisheries decided Saturday to send a letter to state legislators asking them to consider more regulatory protection for salmon in the Bristol Bay river drainages downstream of the proposed Pebble mine.

The board members did not favor advocating for a state fish refuge in the Nushagak and Kvichak river drainages, an idea that had been floated by some opponents of the massive copper and gold prospect. The refuge proposal had been seen as a tool either to block Pebble or subject it to additional environmental oversight.

Saturday's decision followed more than five hours of testimony in downtown Anchorage, mostly on the fish refuge concept. Many people from Bristol Bay villages backed the idea, but other village residents said they feared it would harm economic development and other activities in their region.

Others who weighed in during the Fisheries Board hearing were seafood processors and commercial and sport fishermen, who favored increased protection for the two river drainages, and representatives of the companies seeking to develop Pebble and other pro-mining groups, who said Alaska's existing rules are among the best in the world.

After listening to public testimony and presentations by state officials about the state's process for mine permitting, several of the board members said they believe concerns about large-scale mining and protecting Bristol Bay salmon are legitimate.

"What harm is there in asking for additional protection when we all know that so many projects around the world have caused so much environmental harm, even in the face of regulations and statutes that provided at the time, to everybody's belief, adequate safeguards?" said Anchorage resident Karl Johnstone, the board's vice chair.

The board members agreed Saturday evening to finalize the wording of their letter to the Legislature during some ensuing sessions on Bristol Bay fisheries proposals, which will end Tuesday.

Both proponents and opponents of the refuge idea said they are satisfied by the Fisheries Board's decision.

It's fair to ask if the state's rules are adequate, said Mike Heatwole, spokesman for the Pebble Partnership, the joint venture attempting to develop the proposed mine, which is believed to hold a vast storehouse of copper and gold, worth billions of dollars at current metal prices. The partners are London mining giant Anglo American and Canadian explorer Northern Dynasty Minerals.

Heatwole said everyone -- including the mine's proponents -- might benefit from such a review. "There's a tremendous amount of fear, if you will, in the state's permitting program," he said.

One of the coauthors of the refuge proposal said he thought the board did a "very good job."

"It's a win for the habitat and the fisheries in Bristol Bay. The board is going to send a clear message to the Legislature," said Brian Kraft, a Pebble opponent who owns two sportfishing lodges in the Bristol Bay region.

He said the magnitude of the Pebble project -- one of the largest of its type in the world -- is something that the state has never faced before.

"Let's make sure that fish are the priority. That's in essence what this was about," Kraft said.

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

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