Jewelers join the fight against Pebble

Ben Blakey

It should come as no surprise that someone like me -- whose family's business and financial interests are tied to the Bristol Bay fishing industry -- opposes the Pebble Mine. But I'm just one among thousands of other business owners and individuals whose incomes depend directly on the continued health of the region's salmon industry.

Recently, we've acquired unexpected, but welcome, allies.

At the invitation of Bristol Bay families and fishermen, a growing coalition of leading U.S. and U.K. jewelers have joined our effort to protect Bristol Bay salmon fisheries threatened by the Pebble project: They will refuse to buy any gold mined there. Their extraordinary stance recognizes that developing Pebble Mine would damage the world's biggest wild sockeye salmon fishery, harm the industry that depends on that fishery, and undermine traditions of local Alaskans.

The coalition is composed of small, family-owned stores as well as internationally known jewelers, including Tiffany's & Co., with combined total sales of more than $3.7 billion in 2008. An estimated 80 percent of demand for gold globally is for jewelry, which means jewelry retailers carry clout with the gold mining industry.

At a time when consumers are looking for products that are made sustainably and without exploiting people or abusing the environment, these jewelers act on their ethics, which also makes for good business. They have backed up their support with their reputations and their dollars. As someone aware of the economic risks involved, I applaud them for publicly supporting with both words and actions the local Alaskans who are working hard to protect Bristol Bay.

The Pebble debate has often been framed in economic terms, such as numbers of jobs, potential tax revenues and total extraction values. Such a massive mine makes the subject of economics unavoidable. But those figures ignore the priceless aspects of local culture and fishing tradition. It is important to remember that Pebble would provide only a small number of jobs to local Alaskans for the short term, while putting at risk tens of thousands of sustainable, long-lasting jobs that now rely on the salmon fishery nurtured by the Bristol Bay watershed.

According to a recent report, this fishery supports almost 75 percent of the jobs in the Bristol Bay area, providing more than $175 million in payroll every year. But it isn't all about the money. Bristol Bay's fishing traditions, its culture, its wildlife and other natural wonders simply can't be valued on a base monetary scale.

Still, like it or not, we live in a society where economic interests dominate the political landscape and money means influence. That being so, the message of the opponents to Pebble just got a lot louder, now that we've been joined by these jewelers and the influence inherent in their $3.7 billion industry. That's a pretty fat checkbook -- and a pretty thunderous voice.

Ben Blakey, whose family owns and operates Snopac in Dillingham, is a salmon fisherman who grew up working in the Bristol Bay salmon industry. He splits his time among Seattle, Naknek and Dillingham.