Alaska's Bristol Bay is the most lucrative wild salmon fishery in the world, worth an estimated $1.5 billion according to a new study released by the University of Alaska Anchorage's Institute for Social and Economic Research.
The $1.5 billion takes into account the harvesting, processing and retailing of Bristol Bay salmon, as well as the total economic effects of those activities -- all the way from the gill netter who hauls the fish into their boats, to the grocery clerk in Seattle who hands the fish over to a customer.
According to the report, all those impacts make the fishery so valuable. In 2010, for instance, the fishery produced $370 million in exports, accounting for nearly 6 percent of the total value of all U.S. seafood exports.
Did that number surprise Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association Executive Director Bob Waldrop?
"Totally," he said by phone Thursday.
Waldrop, whose association requested the study, said he was familiar with the in-state economic contributions of the industry. In 2010, the region harvested 29 million sockeye, worth roughly $165 million. According to Waldrop, those 29 million sockeyes equate to about $400 million worth of state economic benefits.
"The fish come back to the bay and that's the end of their biological life cycle," Waldrop said. "But the economic cycle just begins there."
Waldrop said the association decided to do the study to make sure there was more data on a national level to support the fishery, which is in the center of a long-running debate over the proposed Pebble Mine project.
The mine, located in Southwest Alaska near Lake Iliamna, has an estimated 80.6 billion pounds of copper and 107.4 million ounces of gold. But the proposed mine -- which would be Alaska's largest -- is also located at the heart of the Bristol Bay watershed. Opponents argue the mine will devastate the salmon.
Waldrop said the debate is one of national significance, as indicated by the study's findings. "It's a national issue, and there will be a national solution," he said.
The report also shows that while Bristol Bay creates 12,000 seasonal jobs, the revenue for which translates to an estimated 10,000 full-time jobs around the country.
That number is meaningful to Waldrop, especially as the fight against Pebble Mine ramps up. Proponents of the mine have argued that it will create 1,000 jobs that could last for decades in a region starved for them.
"We're trying to defend ourselves against the idea there should be a mine out there," Waldrop said. "Because it's one or another. Do we want to give up 10,000 jobs for 1,000?"
The report comes at the same time the Environmental Protection Agency is conducting a comment period of its revised Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment. The public has until May 31 to offer comment on the assessment, which is going through its second round of analysis. The agency has said it hopes to have a final version on the assessment ready by fall 2013.
Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the percent of exports Bristol Bay salmon make up in terms of total U.S. exports. The total value is 6 percent, not 20 percent.