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Rural Alaska

Mine developer teams with Bristol Bay fishermen in lawsuit against marketing company’s ‘anti-Pebble’ efforts

  • Author: Alex DeMarban
  • Updated: April 7, 2019
  • Published April 7, 2019

A group of Bristol Bay commercial fishermen have teamed up with the developer of the Pebble mine prospect to sue a seafood marketing group they say is illegally spending money to fight the mine.

“I don’t want my permit tax dollars to do anything other than promote wild salmon, period," said Gary Nielsen, a boat captain from the village of Kokhanok who calls himself “neutral” on whether the copper and gold mine is built.

Nielsen and five other fishermen are suing the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, alleging the marketing company is spending $250,000 on efforts to stop the mine, according to the complaint filed in Anchorage Superior Court on Monday.

They say the money is being “unlawfully spent” in violation of state law, and should be used for marketing seafood.

Pebble Limited Partnership, the company behind the copper and gold prospect, acknowledged last week it is funding the lawsuit.

BBRSDA is funded with a 1 percent tax on the harvest, and was founded by fishermen starting in 2005, with approval from the state of Alaska.

The other plaintiffs are Trefim Andrew, Tim Anelon, Henry Olympic, and Abe and Braden Williams.

Their complaint argues the money is paying for outreach against the mine by the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, and opposition research by SalmonState. Both of the groups oppose Pebble.

Andy Wink, executive director of the marketing group, said Pebble is the top concern of the “vast majority” of its fishermen members. Bristol Bay wild salmon are unlike any other resource in the world, and originate in an unspoiled environment, he said.

“The Pebble Mine could jeopardize that, and at the very least we believe it’s important to engage in the permitting process so that if the mine does proceed, it’s built with adequate safeguards for fishermen, residents, and sockeye consumers,” Wink said.

If built, Pebble would be an open-pit copper and gold mine about 200 miles southwest of Anchorage, near salmon-producing headwaters of the Bristol Bay fishery.

Mike Heatwole, a spokesman with Pebble, said Pebble agreed to fund the lawsuit because the fishermen have limited funds.

“There were several fishermen that we’ve gotten to know over the years who were quite angered by the fact that the taxes they pay on their fish landings is not being use to market and promote the fish,” Heatwole said in a statement.

Heatwole said the lawsuit does not challenge the marketing group’s ability to participate in the Pebble permitting process, launched by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in February. The public comment period ends May 30.

The marketing money should not be used to fund the “anti-Pebble activities,” Heatwole said.

“The state passed legislation establishing a tax on fishermen for the express purpose of marketing and this use of funds is clearly does not meet the state’s intent,” Heatwole said.

Nielsen said opponents of Pebble have exaggerated its risks to the fishing industry. It’s so far away from creek and river drainages, and Iliamna Lake, that the chance of harm is limited, he said.

“If it happens good, if it doesn’t happen good,” he said.

Like fishing, the mine could provide long-term jobs, he said.

“This is our home and we want to make a living here, and we want our kids to make a living here,” he said.