The bitter battle over Alaska’s salmon

Alaska’s fishing community and mining industry are engaged in a bitter battle, with fishermen arguing that a planned gold mine risks poisoning the waters where Pacific salmon spawn. The debate has forced Alaskans to consider what kind of future they want for their wild and sparsely-populated state.

In summer camps across America youngsters hike, swim and toast marshmallows by the fire. But they play by different rules in south west Alaska.

In Dillingham, a small town at the mouth of the Ishugak river, children as young as six go to camp to learn how to gut and bone a sockeye salmon.

Youngsters who show promise with the filleting knife are introduced to the joys of the smokehouse. Nobody goes home without a strip of dried salmon to chew on.

Kim Williams, mother of six, camp leader, subsistence fisherwoman and stalwart of the Yupik tribe, says it is vital to pass on practical skills to the next generation.

“Our people have lived off fishing for thousands of years,” she tells me, as a rich aroma of woodsmoke and singed salmon meat hangs in the air. “It’s our past and our future.”

Kim Williams gives children a lesson

Kim and her family catch salmon the old-fashioned way. They string up a net close to the bank of the Ishugak and haul it in when they see fish thrashing in the mesh.

It is a satisfyingly simple art, and it works.

But the salmon harvest is also a billion-dollar business. Commercial fishermen from Seattle and beyond haul in tens of millions of fish between June and September.

The catch is sliced, diced, canned, frozen, smoked and salted with relentless efficiency in processing plants along the Kvichak estuary. Then it is shipped all over the world.

The indigenous fishermen, the commercial fleet and even the sports anglers who breeze into Dillingham in their private planes all abide by the strict rules imposed by Alaska’s fish management team.

Salmon packing

If the numbers of salmon reaching the spawning grounds are down, then fishing permits are suspended. First priority is always given to the long term sustainability of the world’s greatest wild salmon run.

But for how much longer can that be guaranteed?

A cloud of uncertainty hangs over this corner of Alaska.

It comes in the form of a plan to dig one of the world’s biggest copper and gold mines in the upper reaches of the Bristol Bay catchment area.

The Pebble mining company – part owned by the British minerals giant Anglo American – wants to extract billions of tons of copper ore from a hole in the ground at least two miles wide and half a mile deep.

The mine could be worth up to half a trillion dollars.

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