Breached mine tailings dams be damned! As millions of Fraser River sockeye salmon head for spawning beds polluted by a brew of metal toxins oozing from the Mount Polley gold/copper mine disaster in British Columbia, Republican candidates vying for U.S. Senate want environmental regulators to butt out of Alaska's mining development decisions.
The three men hoping to unseat Sen. Mark Begich faced off last week for a rural Alaska Republican candidates forum hosted by KYUK-FM in Bethel.
To questions posed by moderator Ben Matheson, candidates Joe Miller, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and Dan Sullivan all slammed the Environmental Protection Agency for its plans to impose strict water requirements aimed at blocking the proposed Pebble mine. Each candidate also agreed with legislation recently introduced in the U.S. Senate (by Sen. Lisa Murkowski and two other senators) that says the EPA cannot use its authority under the Clean Water Act "pre-emptively or retroactively."
"To have the EPA come in and take power away from the permitting process is not necessarily going to solve the Pebble problem, and it's going to hurt mines all over the state," said Treadwell. "When I say 'solve the Pebble problem,' this is something that we just can't say we're not going to do the science, we can't say we're not going to look at a permit. This is a big piece of our state's statehood bounty and we have to be able to make sure that we've got that capability.
"As we go through the Pebble process, looking for an easy yes or no answer can have huge effects on other mining, other resource development projects in the state, and we have to be extremely careful. And I believe the EPA solidly overreached on this one," Treadwell said, concluding with a barb at Begich, who opposes the Pebble mine, for "not letting the state make its own decisions and sending the decisions back to Washington."
Sullivan, former state attorney general and DNR commissioner, said "the pre-emptive veto is another example of this administration acting in a lawless manner," and he questioned if the EPA even has the legal authority to act.
"When a company comes in and is asked by the state to explore the resources, which is what happened in the Pebble case, they should be allowed to go through the permitting process," Sullivan said. "It's state land, a project they haven't seen the details of yet, and they are saying they have pre-emptive authority under the Clean Water Act -- I don't think they do. This to me would set a bad precedent all over the state. And I've been someone who's had a career of not only talking about the EPA but who has actually taken them on and gone to court against them."
Miller agreed, saying the EPA "has been used as a hammer against the state."
"We have to push back against the EPA at every point we have," Miller said. "It's a state issue and the state should be in charge of it, and the state should do it in a way that the people direct."
And that is exactly what has been done, sirs.
The candidates disregard the fact that the EPA came to Alaska to assess the impacts of large-scale mining to the Bristol Bay region after two years of relentless urging by more than a dozen First Alaskans groups, plus thousands of commercial and sport fishermen and other residents.
Super salmon PR
Cordovans have long used a tactic to make sure their region's famous salmon remains in the spotlight -- they invite food pros from all over the country and show them the ropes. Eight visitors were in town two weeks ago for the annual sockeye tour, including a cookbook writer, a radio journalist, food bloggers and photographers.
"We showed them the Copper River watershed and how that is a big part of our fishery. We went out to the glacier and they got to see the sonar counting station from ADF&G and the practices being done here for sustainability. We took them through a processing plant and out fishing on the Copper River delta, they met the state biologists and they got to be a part of the community," said Nelly Hand, executive director of the Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association.
A highlight, of course, was eating the fish in a sort of movable feast.
"We did a movable potluck with local fishermen's wives' homes in Cordova and had salmon cooked every single way -- chowder and smoked and caviar," Hand said.
It's the seventh year that Cordova's salmon fishermen have invited Outside visitors to town, and they bring a whole lot more along with them.
"Our guests were on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and sharing pictures and updates live of what they were learning during the week," Hand said, "so people across the country could also have the experiences of what we were doing every single day."
Another group of visitors arrives in late August for a coho tour to round out the season. Hand credits the local fishermen's marketing association for the program's success. The state created an opportunity in 2004 for fishermen to tax themselves on their catches (any species) and form their own marketing groups.
"I think that is what makes it really unique -- we are fishermen-funded and fishermen-run. Our board is made up of 11 different fishermen, and that's who is making our decisions and creating our programs. And all together we are working to maximize the quality of the fish that we are sharing from our region," Hand said.
"There's a big generation of young fishermen out there who are really passionate about what they are doing. To see them put the work in and want to see their fish go as far as it can -- it's exciting to be a part of that."
Who, what, where
Alaska's jig fleet, which fishes primarily for cod, now numbers 244 boats -- a nearly 220 percent increase through 2012. The jig influx is mainly from Southeast-based boats in what's been a Kodiak-dominated fishery.
The Bering Sea crab fleet totals just 83 boats; the bulk of those call the state of Washington home.
Those are just a few of the fishing facts in an updated fleet profile through 2012. The user-friendly booklet is from the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, the overseers of federal water fisheries that produce nearly 85 percent of Alaska's fish harvests. (Hundreds of other Alaska vessels fish for salmon, herring and crab in state waters, out to 3 miles, which are not included.)
The fleet profile shows that 1,462 fishing vessels plied the waters of the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska. It includes the names of every boat by gear type, average lengths, the year built, what they fish for and the hailing ports.
Two hundred fifty-one of the boats are trawlers, and 130 vessels make up the groundfish pot fleet. The halibut IFQ fleet at 991 boats was down by about 100 from previous years; 382 boats fished for IFQ sablefish.
Most of Alaska's fishing fleet was built in the 1970s and '80s, and while most people imagine vessels in the farther-away federal fisheries are huge, 80 percent are less than 60 feet.
As to where the fleets call home -- most of the crabbers and large catcher processors report Seattle as their home port; most of the fishing boats delivering shoreside hail from Alaska.