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People of Bristol Bay will never trade fish for gold

Two important annual events are kicking off this Friday. In Bristol Bay, Alaska, it's salmon season. Smokehouses will start filling up with strips of fresh king salmon. Fishermen will be delivering totes full of sockeye to tenders. Families will be gathering at sites all along the river banks, as they have done for generations, in order to not only feed their loved ones but also to feed their spirit as indigenous peoples.

Here in Vancouver, British Columbia, a Bristol Bay-related event is also set to begin. This Friday, Northern Dynasty Minerals hosts its annual shareholders meeting. But whereas back home we are celebrating the return of our greatest natural resource, this Vancouver gathering is focused on what non-renewable resources can be taken from Bristol Bay. The major topic of discussion? Moving forward with the Pebble mine, a copper and gold deposit the company describes as "world class," and which ranks among the world's largest undeveloped mineral deposits. This deposit also happens to be located under the natural wetlands that form the headwaters of Bristol Bay's two economic engines: the Kvichak and Nushagak rivers. Together, these river systems are responsible for 51 percent of the world's commercially harvested sockeye salmon.

At this year's shareholders meeting, Northern Dynasty Minerals wants to achieve one thing: convince current and potential investors that Bristol Bay is open and ready for mining.

To those same current and potential Northern Dynasty investors: I'm here to tell you — it's not. Northern Dynasty has pitched the Pebble project in one form or another since 2001. During those 16 years Bristol Bay's position has been unwavering: Fish first, Pebble never. That will never change.

This year, Northern Dynasty will try to convince the investment community that the tide has turned back home and Bristol Bay's residents are coming around to the notion of the Pebble mine. For example, the company will point to its new "advisory committee" meant to guide developers toward building a safer, more responsible Pebble mine. This is nothing new. In fact, it's a replay from years past when Northern Dynasty hired the Keystone Center to conduct essentially the same task as the current advisory committee. The Keystone Center's process was widely panned in Alaska, and it utterly failed to convince Bristol Bay on the merits of Pebble. Despite the advisory committee's new membership and new title, it cannot fix the essential problem with the Pebble mine: The people of Bristol Bay do not want it.

Northern Dynasty will tout its recent legal settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a big win, and as the signal that green lights are ahead for the Pebble mine. Don't be fooled by the rhetoric. The settlement Northern Dynasty is touting as a victory now requires the company to meet strict timelines for moving into environmental review under the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act. We welcome the idea that Northern Dynasty — a company that has stalled on filing mine permits for over a decade — is finally having its feet held to the fire. They say they have a world-class mine plan. Well, it's time for them to show their cards.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game forecasts that 41.47 million sockeye salmon will return to Bristol Bay's rivers this year. That staggering number does not include the thousands more chinook and coho that will likewise make their way back to the streams of their birth. The same streams that overlay the Pebble deposit.

For the people of Bristol Bay, that's all this is about. Native people have made their way on this land since time immemorial. Small boat captains have sustainably operated a commercial fishery here for more than 100 years. Bristol Bay's salmon have fed the world. They are a natural resource unlike any other: They have the power to regenerate themselves, year after year. Ad infinitum. But that is only possible if we make the right management decisions today. A Pebble mine, big or small, cannot co-exist with our fishery. Pebble will always be the wrong mine, in the wrong place. And the people of Bristol Bay will never trade our fish for gold.

Alannah Hurley is a lifelong Bristol Bay resident and executive director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay. UTBB is a tribal consortium representing 14 tribes (over 80 percent of the total population of Bristol Bay) working to protect the Bristol Bay watershed that sustains the Yup'ik, Denai'na and Alutiq way of life.

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