Bristol Bay's rivers, rich salmon runs still need permanent protection

The buzz this time of year around the state is astonishing. The fish are running and Alaskans are filling their freezers and bellies with fresh, delicious salmon. Here in Bristol Bay, the touted banner run had us holding our breath early in the season, but now they've arrived just like they have each summer. Bristol Bay's rivers work hard. Year in and year out, our salmon are an important source of income and sustainable food for thousands of Alaskans and Americans. These fish support two of Alaska's top three economic engines in the state: fisheries and tourism.

Each summer, the fishing communities bordering the bay, as well as sport operations upstream, come alive. It's why many Alaska families, including my own, have worked so hard for so long to protect our headwaters from the proposed Pebble mine -- a shortsighted plan that peer-reviewed science clearly shows would harm our fishing industry.

Whether your ancestors came here thousands of years ago or you are instead a more recent transplant, one can not even begin to put a value to the subsistence fishery. My wife and I have learned to take place in the very same tradition alongside those who have done this traditional fishing for generations. The fishing and subsistence gathering my wife has done this summer will feed our family in the days, weeks and months to come.

Aside from just our freezers and smokehouses, the salmon that are flooding our nets, rivers and pocketbooks are critical to Alaska's economy. Last year, President Obama put Bristol Bay in the national spotlight by recognizing this important resource is too great to put at risk when he protected our salmon from offshore oil and gas development. While we are grateful for this step, we are anxious to solidify lasting protections for salmon spawning grounds before the real celebrations begin.

Protecting our clean upstream waters is critical to keeping our salmon coming back each season. As the proposed Pebble mine -- the major threat to salmon and clean water -- remains alive, so does our work to protect our salmon and clean water. Our determination to defeat the disastrous Pebble mine proposal is as unwavering as the persistence of our sockeyes' return upstream. After all, 14,000 jobs depend on them.

Thanks to the current health of the many streams upriver that provide some of the best places in the world for salmon to spawn, Bristol Bay hosts a fishery valued at $1.5 billion. That doesn't even count the tens of millions of dollars in the sportfishing industry and the fact that you simply cannot monetize the value of the precious subsistence traditions.

Though Alaskans aren't opposed to development, we can easily recognize when to draw the line. We know not to risk a thriving economic engine that has supported generations for the short-term gain another might provide. To protect our jobs, we must protect our salmon and hardworking rivers.


We have made progress, but right now there is still no certainty that our fisheries are protected from Pebble. At the request of tens of thousands of Alaskans, and ultimately over 1.5 million Americans, the Environmental Protection Agency made promising steps to protect Bristol Bay's working rivers from Pebble mine -- but finishing that process has been delayed. Additionally, the state overwhelmingly passed a ballot measure that called for another hurdle Pebble would have to clear in order to operate. While an important piece, it doesn't guarantee that Pebble won't harm our fisheries.

We hope to have an opportunity to show President Obama why we have worked for a decade to protect this place. To show him the fish frenzy firsthand. To see and enjoy our working rivers. We have invited the president to Bristol Bay and hope that he will stand with fishermen and Alaskans to put Bristol Bay in the national spotlight as an example of sustainable industry done right.

My own family and thousands of other Alaska families depend on and love this fishery as the lynchpin of our community's culture, recreation and way of making a living. 2015 was another season for the record books, and we'll keep fighting until we know "working rivers" is a title that will fit for many generations to come.

Norman Van Vactor is a longtime participant in the Bristol Bay fisheries and current CEO of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation. He lives in Dillingham.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com

Norman Van Vactor

Norman Van Vactor is a longtime participant in Bristol Bay fisheries and current CEO of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation. He lives in Dillingham.