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Seafood development association shifts focus away from Pebble Mine

The Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association took another step away from prior efforts to fight Pebble Mine with the election of a new board president.

In September, the board elected Abe Williams, who is also the president of Nuna Resources, to head the seafood development group. Nuna is a nonprofit that supports sustainable resource development in rural Alaska, including calling for what Williams has said is due process for the proposed Pebble project.

The fishing association, or BBRSDA, is funded by a 1 percent tax on Bristol Bay drift fishermen. Historically it has opposed Pebble Mine, including spending at least a fifth of its budget on sustainability and anti-mining efforts over the past several years and a policy statement adopted in 2008 that opposed large-scale mining.

But that focus has been shifting away from that work.

Williams, an Anchorage resident who was born in Bristol Bay and fishes the F/V Crimson Fury, replaced Buck Gibbons, who had been elected president at the board's June annual meeting in Dillingham. Williams said he couldn't discuss the details surrounding the change in leadership, and Gibbons didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Williams and Gibbons are both among those who feel the association's mission is to promote Bristol Bay salmon on the world market, and get a better return for fishermen.

"I understand that sustainability is important, and we will never lose sight of the fact that we need to protect this habitat and this watershed, and all things that generate our livelihood, but at the same time we need to get prepared for new market realities," Gibbons said in an interview with KDLG News in June.

Gibbons pointed to better marketing and efforts to chill all fish in the bay as top priorities at that time.

Williams, who called out the organization for spending too much on political agendas in his candidate statement last spring, said he'd like to see the association keep moving down that newer path.

"I think the organization has a pretty solid strategic plan or vision that it would like to achieve and we spent some time here over the past week putting together some committees that are going to help us get to those goals and I'm pretty excited about it," Williams said after the most recent board meeting, held Sept. 22-23 in Bellingham, Washington.

While those sentiments garnered votes last spring, not everyone in the association is onboard with the shift.

Drift fisherman Robin Samuelson has been involved in BBRSDA since the organization was founded in 2005, and said he thinks marketing and quality work needs to be paired with a continued focus on sustainability.

"I think they need to do both," Samuelson said. "A 50 million run getting paid 50 cents a pound, that doesn't cut it. They need to do both sectors, they can't just focus in on marketing. The state has been spending millions of dollars marketing processors, and still the price of salmon has gone down."

Samuelson said he thinks Pebble is still a threat to the fishery, and something that the BBRSDA should be working on.

"I don't think the Pebble fight is over by any means," Samuelson said. "I think they will jump at the chance if they get financing to move on Pebble as fast as they can, so you know, we gotta be vigilant on it, and convince the Legislature and folks that Pebble today is a threat to Bristol Bay."

This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.

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