Joe Dock slogged his way through the sucking gray tidal mud and bent to pick a sockeye from his net. It was hard work when the tide was ebbing and the net began to go dry.
Still, he'd been doing it for years and his income depended on it. That sockeye would buy a gallon of fuel oil to heat his house this winter. More than that -- it was his life, his heritage.
As he dropped the silvery fish into his skiff, he thought about the coming mine at the head of his river. The mine would bring jobs -- jobs, and the end to his way of life.
The kids and outsiders didn't understand. They wanted the quick and easy money from a day job. Joe's eyes were old, but they could see far.
There would be jobs for his community. For maybe 20 years. Then what? The kids would drive their shiny new trucks on the new 12 miles of proposed mining road. The trucks would grow old and the pavement would return to the tundra when the mine closed. What then?
Salmon has been a way of life on the Kvichak River and Lake Illiamna since the first human stared in wonder at the returning horde. Village life revolved around the coming of the fish. Sure enough, in the past, men have been greedy and damaged the run. But the salmon overcame these mistakes and came back in numbers. The run is healthy now.
The best-managed salmon runs in the world are in Bristol Bay. Man has not been able to undo nature's bounty with his greed and misunderstandings. Despite the naysayers, Joe doubts that mining would cause permanent harm. Oh sure, a toxic spill of chemicals would be devastating to Lake Illiamna. But many generations would pass and gradually the salmon would return as they always have.
However, once the mining jobs and the associated supply businesses take over the area, Joe's people and their way of life would be gone. Already the Internet and the X-box have made inroads on the young people. In spite of that, they always come to fish during the short summer season. There would be no summer season for the kids if they have day jobs. Joe can see that. The 20-year cycle of the mine would remove them from their way of life and their culture. There could be no return to the past.
Western Alaska depends on its sockeye runs. Personally I will make no argument for or against the proposed Pebble Mine. Instead I will offer some food for thought.
There is only one Bristol Bay. There is gold in many places. The Fraser River had a red salmon run rivaling that of Bristol Bay's less than 20 years ago. Today it is a shadow. Development has taken its toll there.
Bristol Bay is one of the few places in our world where we can be proud of what we have not done. There are no oil drill rigs mixed within the fishing fleet. The bay remains wild. The run is the healthiest in the world. There has been no need to hatchery-enhance it. The return regularly exceeds 30 million fish.
In contrast is the Pebble proposal to construct the largest open-pit mine in the world. That means a lot of high-paying jobs for Alaska and the villages near by the mine. There would not be the pressing need to fish, or to continue the largely subsistence lifestyle now practiced in the region.
Increasingly, fishing permits are migrating from the region, with many going to non-residents. Still, there are far more locals involved in the fishery and its infrastructure than 50 years ago. In the 1960s, the canneries brought not only tho cannery workers from afar, but fishermen too.
Jobs associated with the Pebble mine would pay the bills today. They would buy the fuel oil to heat the houses. We don't know what the tomorrows will bring. All we can do is try to define the risk. Are jobs worth a salmon run? Are they worth a way of life? Let's look through Joe's eyes.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan and two-time Yukon Quest champion who lives near Paxson and commercially fishes in Bristol Bay.