Cynthia Carroll, the Pebble Limited Partnership's CEO, recently came from London to assure Alaska's Resource Development Council that salmon and open pit copper sulfide mining really can coexist. This caused me to consider all similar copper mines I know in salmon habitat in case I had missed a thriving example of coexistence. Let's see ... Iron Mountain Mine? No. Leviathan Mine? No. Formosa Mine? No ... Perhaps this lack of U.S. examples is why proponents are touting Canada's Fraser River as a demonstration of open pit copper mining and salmon coexistence. But is it really such an example?
Last year's record high return of about 29 million sockeye to Canada's Fraser River did leave scientists scratching their heads. But, as noted by Jeffrey Young, aquatic scientist for B.C.'s David Suzuki Foundation, "One good day for the stock market doesn't mean the end of a recession." And make no mistake, Fraser River sockeye salmon are "in recession."
From 1956 to the early 1990s, annual Fraser River sockeye runs averaged about 8 million fish then began to decline. In six of the last 11 years, the sockeye fishery closed due to poor returns with TOTAL annual runs during 2007-2009 failing to exceed 2 million sockeye. Ninety-four Native communities that rely on Fraser sockeye for subsistence were encouraged by the Canadian government to develop a salmon-rationing plan in 2008, and subsistence harvest has been limited multiple years. So has sport harvest. Fraser River salmon declines triggered a $15 million federal judicial inquiry that began in 2009, making last year's anomalous large run an as yet unexplained mystery. The probability of a similar large run to the Fraser in 2011 is practically zero.
In addition to abundance declines, Fraser River salmon biodiversity -- a crucial trait that helps sustain fisheries -- is also in decline. Of the many unique sockeye populations comprising the total Fraser sockeye run, one is critically endangered, three are endangered and another is vulnerable to extinction. Cultus Lake sockeye, the "critically endangered" population, went from an average run of 50,000 fish (1950-1995) to fewer than 3,000 over the last decade; they are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years. I would be surprised if the others mentioned did not follow suit.
Mining, pulp mills, agriculture, forestry, roads and other development in the Fraser River watershed all cause water pollution and regular violations of water quality standards for copper, zinc, lead, cadmium, chromium and many other pollutants toxic to salmon. Pollution contributions by source, i.e., tracing the amount due to mining, is data the Canadian government does not readily share. So I ask you, is the hype around "coexistence" valid here? Would you bet Bristol Bay on it?
Alaska, I offer you Bristol Bay. Pride of ownership should warm you all, as it truly is the most amazing, prolific, diverse, healthy sockeye salmon run left on the planet. Since 1956, annual Bristol Bay sockeye salmon runs averaged 29 million fish, in contrast to Fraser River sockeye runs that averaged 7 million fish. And that paltry 29 million fish run last year? The highest ever recorded for the Fraser? Well, Bristol Bay's recent 40 million-plus annual sockeye salmon run helps put it all in perspective.
Dr. Carol Ann Woody is a former federal fisheries and wildlife scientist with over 20 years of Alaska experience and over 30 publications. She serves on the American Fisheries Society Environmental Concerns Committee, is adjunct faculty at UAF and owns and operates Fisheries Research and Consulting specializing in Bristol Bay research. www.fish4thefuture.com. She lives in Anchorage.