News that mining giant Anglo American plans to withdraw from the Pebble project was greeted with joy by opponents who hailed it as a victory for the people of Bristol Bay and for the region's resources.
Pebble would be the largest gold and copper mine in North America, and its location looms over the world's biggest sockeye salmon fishery at Bristol Bay. But even though London-based Anglo has pulled out of the Pebble Partnership, Northern Dynasty Minerals of Canada still remains. And they insist the project is still very much alive.
"This does not eliminate development of Pebble mine," said Bob Waldrop, director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association that is funded and operated by more than 1,800 salmon fishermen. "This just means we're back to Northern Dynasty, which is where we were before Anglo came in several years ago. Northern Dynasty will shop around and in all likelihood will find another partner. So we are not going to rest on this news."
Northern Dynasty, which in 2001 launched the Pebble project, takes over sole ownership of all the mining claims. Unlike Anglo American, which is one of the world's biggest mining companies, Northern Dynasty has never operated a mine.
The Pebble Partnership had announced its release of a mine plan by year's end, with a goal of beginning permitting shortly after. The timeline could change, but the project will proceed, said Sean McGee, Northern Dynasty's vice president of public affairs. The company has the financial ability to get the project through the next step of seeking state and federal permits, he said.
"Nothing has changed in terms of the mineral resource and the asset that exists in Southwest Alaska," McGee told KDLG in Dillingham. "Pebble remains one of the most important undeveloped mineral resources in the world, with the potential to facilitate very significant capital investment and economic growth through decades. It needs to be developed right, and that means in a way that is acceptable and beneficial to the local people, and in a way that protects the fish and waters of the region. But there is tremendous potential and the corporate changes really don't shake our confidence in the potential of the deposit whatsoever."
Otters do dungies
Next to Kodiak, the Panhandle boasts the most diverse commercial fisheries in the state -- but sea otters could be the undoing of some of Southeast's most lucrative fisheries.
Dungeness crabbers, who harvest several million pounds of crab a year, are really feeling the pinch, said Olivia Olsen with Alaskan Quota and Permits in Petersburg.
"The sea otters are really causing havoc, and now they are moving north and just wiping out the grounds behind them. It has really hurt the Dungeness fishermen, it's a definite problem, a major problem," Olsen said.
Most of the initial crab permits holders have sold out, Olsen said, and new entrants are buying at basement prices.
"The permit prices are so low that the new buyers, the younger buyers who can maybe not afford to get into some of the bigger fisheries, are buying the permits at much discounted prices and trying their best to make it worthwhile," she said.
Olsen has Dungeness permits listed at $44,000 (300 pots); the state value was $43,000 in August. Listings at the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission show the value of those Dungie permits averaging $67,500 in 2012 and have been on a steady decline for more than a decade.
Out of 15 Dungeness crab districts in Southeast, six have large otter populations. A report last year by the McDowell Group said that the crab pots have lost nearly 3 million pounds to otters in a decade.
"There are a lot of traditional grounds that they used to fish where there is nothing left. So they are out there trying to find new grounds," Olsen said.
State managers also claim that sea otters affect 39 percent of Southeast's dive fishery harvest
Best estimates say about 19,000 sea otters were residing in Southeast Alaska in 2011; the number is expected to approach 28,000 by 2015. Based on an estimated adult weight of 50 pounds, and daily food intake of 20 percent of body weight, the animals would consume over 10 million pounds of the region's dive and crab species per year. The report said sea otter predation on Southeast's crab and dive fisheries have cost the region nearly $30 million in direct and indirect impacts since 1995.
Fish video backlash
It's not smart business to publicly blast your biggest client base. The seafood industry has reacted with outrage to a video cartoon posted to YouTube that shows cartoon animals and plants being dragged across a farm landscape in an obvious slap at fish bycatch. It then switches to an underwater ocean scene that asks: "We don't farm like this. Why do we fish like this?" It ends with, "Choose MSC certified sustainable seafood."
The cartoon was produced by the World Wildlife Fund and Loblaws, Canada's largest food retailer and lists the London-based Marine Stewardship Council in its 39 credits.
The problem? More than 80 percent of the seafood tonnage of the MSC's certified fisheries comes from trawl gear.
"The MSC has a very rigorous process that looks at the science, and they use it around the world to certify fisheries. This cartoon plays to people's emotions in a way that doesn't look at the way the fisheries have been analyzed and certified," said Richard Mullins of Alaska Marine Nutrition and a board member of the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, which demanded an apology for "an assault to the whole industry."
"AFDF began work on MSC certification for the Alaskan Pacific cod fishery in January 2006, and completed the certification in January 2010, after considerable expense. We signed up for the certification process because we wanted to feature the sustainability of our fishery management, as well as the four gear types that are used to harvest cod. This video shows a complete absence of knowledge of the fishery or the industry," wrote Jim Browning, AFDF executive director.
Christina Burridge, director of the Association of Sustainable Fisheries, said her membership was "equally exasperated and angry" and called the cartoon a "tiredly stupid exercise."
"There is no room for a sustainability standard that rejects science in this manner," agreed John Sackton, editor and publisher of Seafood.com. "That is the upsetting message in this video -- that those who proclaim themselves the guardians of sustainability actually are putting their own fundraising, gatekeeper, and ideological biases ahead of a scientific investigation of the facts."
The MSC has disavowed involvement in the video or its message. It has since been removed from all on-line sites.