The place felt cold and damp, but ran like clockwork. Walls flashed with numbers, and a conveyer belt carried thousands of fish, delivering them to the hundreds of trained craftsmen who sliced filets. They encased the fish in vacuum-sealed packets with blue stamped letters conveying the name of the fisherman and the date and time of each catch, and then deposited them in custom refrigerated containers to take them to Europe and beyond.
I stood in the Leader Creek processing factory on the mouth of the Naknek River in Alaska’s Bristol Bay. Tucked above the Aleutian Island Chain on the Western coast of Alaska, Bristol Bay claims title to being “America’s fish basket” because it is the epicenter of a Bering Sea fishery that provides nearly half of the seafood in the United States. Most of our country’s wild sockeye salmon, pollock, and red king crab come from this region. And it could all be destroyed by mining.
This vast body of water also serves as habitat for nearly two dozen types of marine mammals– including endangered North Pacific right whales, Steller sea lions and Pacific walrus–as well as one of the world’s largest concentrations of seabirds. As a source of life-sustaining protein and a place of unique biological diversity, the value of Bristol Bay is staggering.
For many Native Americans living in Alaska, Bristol Bay’s fish, wildlife, and plants play a central role in their culture and are a primary source of sustenance. Fish from the Bay often makes up more than half of their diet.
I had the opportunity to dine with local leaders the night before my trip to the processing facility, including a tribal elder, the chair of the Tribal Corporation, the retired senate majority leader for the state of Alaska, and some young scientists and activists who love this place. Over epic plates of king salmon and local vegetables, they told stories about how their lives and culture have evolved to coexist with the salmon and in fact depend on it–not just for economic benefits and food, but for a way of life.
As we talked about the wonder and glory of Bristol Bay, my hosts rolled out a map and showed me the plans for what could be one of the biggest mines on Earth–the Pebble Mine.
Several international conglomerates have identified valuable gold, copper, and molybdenum deposits just upstream. These corporate interests want to cut a deal that will be enormously profitable to them, but that requires building a huge infrastructure to support the mine. Were they to succeed, the phenomenal ecological system of Bristol Bay, upon which the native culture and the local economy exist, would be gutted in the process. Another set of future plans suggest the need for oil drilling in the middle of the Bay itself.
What would be lost? WWF and our partners in the region have already demonstrated that putting oil drilling rigs in the midst of this place is akin to digging for fool’s gold. The value of fish harvests far surpasses the value of oil. A recent study commissioned by WWF found that the actual value of the commercial fisheries at risk from offshore oil and gas development exceeds $4 billion each year. These fisheries could therefore generate more than $160 billion over 40 years–far more than the federal government’s estimate of $7.7 billion in oil and gas revenue from the region.
In 2010, the Obama administration offered temporary relief from those threats by removing the Bay from the nation’s 2012 to 2017 oil and gas leasing plan, and we continue to work toward permanent protection of Bristol Bay’s productive waters. But what we do about the Pebble Mine plan remains a looming question.
What’s at stake here is not just the fish we eat, but also the irreplaceable culture that has flourished amid Bristol Bay’s constant ecological ebb and flow. If properly managed, the beauty of this place could continue forever. But if carelessly mined for short-term financial gain, it would be utterly destroyed.
The residents of Bristol Bay, who live with the salmon and the whales, and who harvest this bounty as part of a rich cultural and economic base know exactly where the fish come from and what they mean to their culture and their economy. It makes me wonder how clearly we see the value of these fish. Increasingly, the blue print on each package of fish–the print that conveys the data of the fish, the fisherman, and their catch–will play a great role in the increasing calls for transparency in our supply chains, and guide the decisions we make every day, whether it’s the fish we buy in the supermarket or the entree we order in the neighborhood restaurant.
The more we understand the stories behind the food we eat, the more we can ensure we don’t allow short-sighted interests to destroy these ecological wonders that feed the world and sustain endangered communities.