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Nature Conservancy Magazine: Summer 2009

The Source

The Source

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“You’re talking about the biggest sockeye salmon factory on the whole planet,” says scientist Carol Ann Woody. The Pebble mine would be “a great big experiment. And is Bristol Bay really the place you want to experiment?”

By Matt Jenkins

Carol Ann Woody is hip deep in an Alaska stream, and beeping. She and biologist Daniel Chythlook, a Native Yup’ik, work their way up a tangle of creeks so small that the two of them can barely fit in the water together. For the better part of a week, Woody’s team of six biologists has been helicoptering in and out of the headwaters of the Nushagak and Kvichak (kwee-jack) rivers in search of juvenile salmon.

As Woody thrashes through a thicket of willows, the strobe light on a boxy contraption strapped to her back flashes red, and the unit beeps like a backhoe moving in reverse. The device is an electroshocker, which mildly stuns fish so that Chythlook, following close behind with a net at the ready, can scoop them up for measurement.

Woody nudges the shocker’s business end — an elongated wand that looks like a clunky World War II land-mine detector — under an overhang on the stream’s edge. Then she cackles like the Wicked Witch of the West: “Come out, come out, wherever you are.”

Suddenly she begins yelling like a maniac.

“Oh! Yes! Coho!!”


Chythlook deftly stabs his net into the water — “Get it, get it, get it! Get it! There! There! Yes!” — and catches a tiny, two-and-a-half-inch-long coho salmon.

“We got a ho-ho!” Woody sings triumphantly.

A few minutes later, another scientist pays out a water-sampling meter into the stream, while Woody measures and weighs the fish. “Look how fat it is,” she says. “It’s a porker!”

Chythlook jots down the length and weight of the fish on his clipboard.

The stream survey is part of an effort by The Nature Conservancy to document salmon’s presence in the remote headwaters of Bristol Bay, as each stream found to support salmon must be afforded protections under state law. Alaska plays a singularly important role in the future of salmon. The state has some of the last pristine habitat for a number of salmon species — coho, sockeye, chum, pink and chinook — not just in North America but in the world. And the watershed here, which feeds Bristol Bay, is a legendary stronghold for sockeye salmon; in fact, it is home to the largest salmon runs on Earth.

At 40,000 square miles, the Bristol Bay watershed is bigger than South Korea and about the same size as Ohio. It is a world out of a dream, a land of caribou, moose and wolves. Time here unfolds under a constantly shifting interplay of light and cloud over the tundra and the rugged mountains that ring the watershed on three sides. But above all, the place feels liquid and sinuous. The water here — from the braided, shimmering necklaces of streams that cut through the landscape to the wide, muddy expanses where the rivers ultimately empty into Bristol Bay — runs free.

In the Lower 48’s salmon country of California, Oregon, Idaho and Washington, streams and rivers have been choked and sullied by dam building, mining, farming and urbanization, each of which has taken big bites out of salmon habitat. “Here,” Woody says, “these ecosystems are still complete and whole. And we’ve got the greatest clean water source that anybody could hope for.”

But even as she says this, her words are drowned out by a floatplane motoring overhead. The aircraft is loaded with fuel for a fleet of helicopters operating nearby, and its arrival is a reminder that her team isn’t the only one assaying the hidden worth of this corner of the world.

Just a quarter mile away, eight teams of drillers are working around the clock to gauge the moneymaking potential of an enormous mineral deposit that could soon become the site of the world’s biggest copper mine. Woody’s band of scientists is racing to take the first measure of whether the construction of a mine would unravel the tightly woven ecological tapestry that sustains the 7,000-year-old subsistence lifestyles of Native villagers — and the future of Bristol Bay.

Two hundred miles downstream, the slate-colored waters of Bristol Bay are edged with silver and spread wide to the southwestern horizon, where the Bering Sea lies beneath a scrim of cloud. The muddy flats along the shore here see some of the biggest tides on the planet; it is a place where ecological processes happen on a grand scale.

The larger-than-life scale of existence here can seem almost unreal at times — so much so that people remember the dates of particularly mesmerizing moments as they would the birth of a child or their wedding day. Pete Andrew is a Yup’ik who has been fishing Bristol Bay since 1978. He recalls one such moment from nearly two decades ago, down to the minute: May 27, 1989, at a quarter to five in the morning. “I was out halibut fishing, and the sun was rising when I came around Cape Constantine,” he says. “And up the entire west channel, it looked like rain.”

“It was [sockeye] smolt jumping, for — gee whiz — like seven miles wide and as far as I could see up the channel. It was the most amazing thing I ever saw in my life. It was as impressive as lions or anything wild as wild can be. It was just incredible.”
Those smolts were bound for sea, where they would spend several years maturing and growing large before returning to spawn. Each year, from May through the fall, runs of five species of salmon come pulsing back through Bristol Bay, bound for the headwaters of the Nushagak and Kvichak Rivers. The fish use the Earth’s magnetic field to point them toward home, until they detect the distinctive scent of their native streams.

On their way back to home water, the salmon undergo a dramatic metamorphosis. As the salmon swim upstream, the carotenoids in their flesh — the pigmentation that gives sockeye meat its lustrous red color — migrate out to the skin, turning the fish bright red. During their month-long journey, the males develop a Quasimodo-like hump on their back, and their jaws transform into a massive overbite, while their gums recede to bare ferocious-looking fangs. At the end of their grueling journey back to their home streams, the fish will spawn and then die.

Even biologists who study salmon for a living speak with awe about the fishes’ determination when it’s finally time to spawn.

“Oh, yeah,” Woody says. “I’ve seen ’em where they’ve had their back eaten off by a bear, and they’re still ready to spawn.”

“Sometimes the males even get locked into a death battle,” she adds, with an almost giddy relish. “They get stuck together like elk.”

Even more astounding, though, is the role the fish play in the broader ecosystem. During the years salmon spend in the ocean, they grow fat on crustaceans and smaller fish fed by the abundant nutrients welling up along the continental shelf. When they return from the oceans to their home streams to spawn, their bodies become the vehicle that pumps life into the inland ecosystem.

“Every year, literally, they bring millions of pounds of nutrients from the ocean,” Woody says. Those nutrients feed algae in the streams, which forms the food base for the aquatic insects on which salmon and their prey depend. When bears feed on salmon, they often drag the carcasses far from the streams, distributing the nutrients even more widely. Nutrients from salmon carcasses can be found in grasses and trees far from any river.

“If you look at the [stream] tributaries as capillaries, salmon feed all of those little capillaries,” Woody says. “And that feeds the whole ecosystem.”

Gernot Wober and Mike Heatwole pile out of a helicopter that has set down on a rise overlooking the headwaters of the Nushagak and Kvichak. Below them, eight drilling rigs are boring holes deep into the tundra. Somewhere off to the east, Team Woody works its way up a creek in pursuit of more salmon.

Wober and Heatwole’s company, the Pebble Limited Partnership, is on a quest to learn the true extent of the enormous copper, gold and molybdenum deposit that lies hidden beneath their feet. Because of the fragility of the tundra, the company uses helicopters, rather than punching roads into the area, and drills with custom-modified heli-transportable rigs. The drills have reached as deep as 6,000 feet underground, and the cores are helicoptered to the nearby village of Iliamna, where geologists are using them to piece together a map of the underground mineral deposits.

The Pebble Partnership, a joint venture between the Canadian company Northern Dynasty Mines and the worldwide mining giant Anglo American, has been drilling in earnest since 2002. The proposed Pebble mine gives every appearance of tapping into a bona fide mother lode, nearly 9 billion tons of ore that would likely be extracted with a combination open-pit and underground mine. “This is getting close to being the world’s largest copper deposit,” Wober says.

The project is still in “pre-feasibility” phase, and the partnership has yet to apply for all the permits it will need to move forward in developing the mine. Yet the company’s proposal is hardly a lark. The partnership has so far spent more than $300 million on exploration.

Wober rattles through a highly technical description of what’s happening here and then pauses to put it in personal terms: “This kind of project happens once in a lifetime.”

The possible development of this mine is raising huge questions — in Bristol Bay and throughout Alaska. Two hundred miles to the east and north, in Anchorage, Ed Fogels looks out of a 14th-floor conference room with commanding views of the Chugach and Alaska mountain ranges. Fogels is the director of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources’ Office of Project Management and Permitting, which is coordinating the application process for the mine.

Fogels, who is coordinating the process to either approve or reject the mine, is the first person to admit that the stakes are incredibly high. “These mines, they’re big disturbances,” he says. “To keep ’em tight is really difficult. And they can really screw up the environment if they’re done wrong.”

Northern Dynasty has applied for permits to use almost 35 billion gallons of water a year for the mine, raising the prospect that streams and aquifers could be “dewatered,” as Fogels puts it. And the tailings from the mine, which would be stored in impoundments on the site forever, can generate acid, which can be deadly to fish. 

“You’re going to have a tremendous amount of waste,”

Fogels says. “The biggest concern for us is storing the waste, long-term, and making sure that the water coming off that waste is forever going to be good.”

The mine proposal has already set off fierce debates as the state of Alaska decides whether the risks of damage to the state’s most iconic fishery are worth the benefits from a treasure trove of precious metals. 

Down the river from the proposed mine site lies a rich wilderness. The Bristol Bay region, despite its immense size, is home to only about 8,000 people, who live scattered throughout three towns and 29 villages. The population is about 66 percent Native, and people here live close to the land — and just as close to the water.

“We live by the seasons,” says Molly Chythlook, the director of the Bristol Bay Native Association’s natural resources department (and sister-in-law to biologist Daniel Chythlook). “We not only live by the seasons, but we live by the tides, too.”

Fall brings berries: salmonberries, blueberries, huckleberries, cloud berries and cranberries. Next come moose, caribou, ducks and geese; upriver, Dena’ina Indians take bear, spruce hen and ptarmigan. Winter fishing yields pike and whitefish, caught through the ice — but winter and spring are the lean time, until fiddlehead ferns, beach greens, wild rhubarb, peas and celery emerge after the snows clear.

It is the summer and fall salmon runs, though, that stand as the cornerstone of subsistence throughout the region. In the villages, each family has its own secret formula for brining the fish, after which it is smoked for three days to create luminescent strips of flesh that seem to emit their own smoky light.

When the first fish begin trickling in toward the end of May, a sense of anticipation rises. On each of the roughly 1,500 commercial boats that fish Bristol Bay, says Pete
Andrew, “we’ll get the nets ready and get them patched. We’ll pull the [engine] hatches open, change the belts if we need to, the hydraulic hoses.” He grins like a kid: “It’s like getting a race car ready.”

Then, sometime around July 4, a veritable blizzard of sockeye slams through the bay — around 39 million in an average year. Bristol Bay fishermen sell the vast majority of fish they catch to canneries and fish processors. And as dog sleds have given way to snowmobiles, kayaks to outboard-powered boats, and wood stoves to oil heaters, the profits from commercial fishing have become the backbone of people’s livelihoods for hundreds of miles around Bristol Bay.

“You gotta keep working day and night,” says Frank Logusak, a fisherman from Togiak. “But what’s one month without sleeping? You can sleep the other 11 months, sleep all you want.”

Meanwhile, at remote fish camps, many families fish for subsistence use throughout the rest of the year. Even after the fish have spawned, many are still caught, split, and their backbones removed and dried separately as feed for villagers’ dogs.

“When I was growing up, people didn’t worry about [heating] oil; they’d just go chop more wood,” says Robin Samuelsen, who heads the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. and sits on the board of trustees for the Conservancy in Alaska. “But subsistence requires cash nowadays.”

In fact, in most villages, fishing is the only real moneymaker. “There’s no jobs in the village,” says fisherman Frank Logusak. “The only time you can earn money is from fishing, and you live off of that throughout the whole winter.”

The economic impact of fishing reverberates deeply throughout the entire community. Each boat supports a cascade of other professions in local communities: mechanics, net menders, cannery watchmen. Even more important, says Samuelsen, “fishing is the glue that holds the families together.”

Pete Andrew’s family has been commercially fishing in Bristol Bay for four generations. “My sons have grown up fishing. Two of them are in college now, and one’s a senior in high school,” he says. “But [fishing] has become a real time to be together again. It identifies us. It’s one common passion we all have: We’re killers of fish.”

Back up the Kvichak River watershed, not far from where Woody’s team is working, Tom Robinson unhurriedly casts for rainbow trout on Lower Talarik Creek. Somewhere in the underbrush nearby, a bear huffs and grunts. It is the tail end of the sockeye run, and all around, salmon scrabble through the riffles and pair off. The wrung-out bodies of those that have already spawned drift down the creek, filling the air with the smell of dead fish.

Robinson owns the Rainbow King Lodge in Iliamna, and this particular spot — Rock Hole — has an outsized reputation in the annals of fly-fishing. “I’ve been here on this rock when the rainbows are comin’ up, and you see ’em in all these riffles just packed shoulder to shoulder,” he says. “The first time I came here, I hooked 14 of them and didn’t land one. They chewed out the lines and ran.”

“It was unbelievable,” Robinson says. “That’s when I knew this is the place.”

Robinson and other lodge owners — as well as their fishing clients — have played an important role in partnering with the Conservancy to protect land here. In the late 1990s, lodge owners turned to their client lists to raise money for a conservation easement on the private land straddling the mouth of the Talarik. The easement prevents the land from being developed and keeps it open for fishing. The initiative was one part of a larger effort to keep the region’s salmon habitat intact.

The Nushagak rises on the north side of the Bristol Bay watershed, and draws water from Wood-Tikchik State Park, the largest state park in the nation. The Kvichak, to the east, gathers its waters in Lake Clark National Park. But downstream from these parks, the rivers are riddled with a shotgun-blast pattern of open-use land that is managed by the federal government, the state and several Native corporations — for-profit entities in which Alaska Native people hold stock.

“Despite the fact that we’ve created those parks and refuges, we didn’t save ecosystems,” says Tim Troll, the Conservancy’s director of southwest Alaska programs. “What good does it do to create a Lake Clark National Park if salmon have to run this gauntlet of unprotected lands to get there?”

A big part of the concern centers on “Native allotments,” 40- to 160-acre parcels that are held by Native individuals but are at increasing risk of being sold and developed. Much of the pressure is driven by an expansion of the sport-fishing industry in the region.

“More and more people have discovered it,” says Russell Nelson, who for many years was the land manager for the local Native corporation. “We were seeing people purchase Native allotments and start lodges on them. And it was always the best places that were being purchased.”

That threat, in fact, cuts to the heart of why Alaska is different when it comes to salmon, says Tim Troll. “In every other region, we have — primarily through the destruction of habitat — killed our big salmon runs,” he says, pointing to the Columbia and Sacramento rivers as cautionary examples. “Those fisheries are just shadows of their former selves.”

While salmon protection in the Lower 48 focuses on re-storing degraded habitat, in Alaska the focus is on protecting land that is still relatively pristine, says Troll. “The key is figuring out how to prevent that fractured land ownership from turning into habitat fragmentation.”

And that’s been the primary goal since the 1990s, when the Conservancy helped establish the Nushagak-Mulchatna Watershed Council to coordinate habitat-protection efforts. The Conservancy also partnered with the Bristol Bay Native Association and the watershed council to interview local subsistence users, in an effort to catalog their environmental knowledge and identify ecologically important spots, including salmon spawning grounds, wintertime fishing spots and caribou crossings, throughout the Nushagak River watershed.

That, in turn, led to a long-term conservation strategy — and helped the Conservancy and its partners zero in on Native allotments that were important and at high risk of being sold and developed. In the years since, the Conservancy, working with the Nushagak-Mulchatna Wood-Tikchik Land Trust, has helped to place conservation easements on several critical pieces of land, including 21,000 acres last year on the edge of Wood-Tikchik State Park. The terms of these easements allow Native allotment owners to continue hunting and fishing on their land, and generate some cash for them as well, while protecting the land from anything more than subsistence development.

Yet now, the prospect of the mine looms large over all these efforts to protect salmon and the local subsistence economy.

Rick Delkittie is vice president of the tribal council in the village of Nondalton, which lies about 16 miles to the east of the proposed mine site.

“I understand we need mines,” he says. But “everything put together comes apart — especially man-made stuff.”

Even people far downstream are worried that an accident at the mine could destroy the salmon fishery. “It’s sitting in the heart of all these drainages,” says Molly Chythlook, in Dillingham. “If there’s any spills, it’s going to be devastating for this region.”

Last fall, opponents of the Pebble mine put a ballot initiative before Alaska voters that was intended to tighten the water-quality standards the mine would have to meet. The Clean Water Initiative was defeated 57 percent to 43 percent.

Today, state regulators vow that when the mine-permitting process begins, it will be just as thorough as if the clean-water measure had passed. “We would never permit a project that we thought would endanger the whole fishery. We would say no to it before taking that risk,” says Ed Fogels. “No one here wants to destroy the Bristol Bay fishery or take even a remote chance that that might happen.”

Clearly assessing those risks will be crucial. That’s why the Conservancy has put a hold on its easement and habitat-protection projects and is now focusing on establishing scientific baselines against which the project can be evaluated.

“To build this mine in this place, you would have to take out salmon habitat,” Troll says. “What concerns me is that we don’t have a good understanding of how that habitat works — particularly the connections between groundwater, lakes and rivers.” The Pebble Partnership has pledged that the mine will cause “no net loss” of salmon and that the company will mitigate for the salmon habitat it does destroy. But the baseline data against which such losses would be measured is scant.

“We know what salmon in this area means to the world,” says Troll. “So we must clearly assess whether a mine in this area can meet the highest standards for protecting salmon, or whether the risk of development is simply too high.”

That’s what brought Woody’s team here to do the stream survey. This year the Conservancy will also partner with several other groups to establish water-quality baselines.

Woody stresses that the risks are high. “You’re talking about the biggest sockeye salmon factory on the whole planet,” she says. The Pebble mine would be “a great big experiment. And is Bristol Bay really the place you want to experiment?”

An accident here, she says, could not only devastate the local environment and livelihoods but also wipe out a crucial pool of salmon diversity. “A diverse salmon-stock portfolio helps insure future salmon returns,” Woody says. “If you wipe out the genetic diversity in this region, those may be the very genes that are able to adapt to climate change.”

After a long day of surveying, the biologists cram themselves around one of the cookhouse tables at Rainbow King Lodge, a map spread out before them. Woody colors in the stretches of stream that her team has spent the week surveying — more than 30 miles’ worth in all.

“We’ve found fish more places than not,” she says. “There’s fish just about everywhere we’ve looked” — including in streams that would disappear under tailings piles.

As they talk, a slightly inebriated woman wanders over to watch. Woody ropes her into the conversation and starts explaining what her team has been up to.
“Cool,” the woman says with a rough growl of a voice, cutting Woody off midexplanation.

Woody starts in again: “We’re just trying to show …”
But for the first time in a week, she can’t get a word in edgewise as the woman finishes her sentence for her: “They’re everywhere.”

The woman cracks her own triumphant grin and growls, “It all counts.”

Woody turns to the rest of the team and beams.

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