Here in Dillingham, at the confluence of the Nushagak and Wood Rivers, sockeye salmon are arriving in significant waves — silver tsunamis of biomass, truly our Alaskan Gold. And through the window of my office in Dillingham, I’m watching 737 and C-130 aircraft loaded down with tens of thousands of pounds of fresh fillets lift off for Anchorage.
It’s almost the height of fishing season. And as this town is transformed from sleepy outpost to buzzing commercial hive, I’m reminded once again how biological health and market evolution are combining to benefit thousands of families invested in their commercial fishing enterprises.
This $1.5 billion, 14,000-job Bristol Bay sockeye economy rests on healthy salmon habitat and clean water throughout the Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds. We have the most pristine rivers, lakes, and wetlands ecosystem anywhere in the North Pacific. That allows all these fish to come home and seed a voluminous next generation. And it affords the next round of smolts the best possible environment to grow to maturity and head to the sea.
Any major threat to habitat is a threat to our economy. That’s why the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., charged with sustainably developing the region’s marine resources, has come out in favor of stronger salmon habitat protections that will be in front of voters this fall — the Yes for Salmon initiative.
And that’s why we’ve consistently spoken out against the Pebble Mine proposed for the headwaters of the Nushagak — where the mine would wipe out 30 miles of salmon streams and tributaries and 3,000 acres of adjacent wetlands, just in its first phase.
But we also know that the we can’t get complacent with mother nature’s bounty and simply maintain the status quo. Over the last three years, our organization has joined with private sector partners and fishermen in Bristol Bay to drive a massive shift from delivering canned salmon to now producing frozen and fresh products that consumers are demanding. We have helped hundreds of boats add chilling capacity onboard, and processors are increasingly shifting to fillets and portions.
This is moving Bristol Bay salmon up the value chain, bringing higher prices and opening up more and more market share for Bristol Bay products here in the United States. It increases the annual impact from Alaskan salmon on the American economy — now pegged at $4.2 billion.
Other Alaskan industries know the mantra of adapting, evolving and bringing greater value to customers and society. As a state, we stand on the threshold of another opportunity. By adopting the development standards outlined in the Yes for Salmon initiative, Alaska will set the pace for how to grow responsibly while also protecting the fish and game that are central to our way of life and our economy.
We know it’s possible for Alaskan industries to develop major projects responsibly: the Trans-Alaska pipeline was built without any major damage to habitat, because state government at the time believed in strong oversight and committed resources to monitor construction.
But because we have no clear scientific standards on the books for permitting development in salmon habitat, the system is open to exploitation and influence in Juneau. And it simply does not have the needed rigor to handle the next generation of mines such as Pebble.
Now is the time for Alaska to lead on responsible development. I believe in the importance of oil, gas and mining. I come from a family of South Dakota Black Hills settlers who balanced gold mining interests with community interests and I have no interest in seeing these industries falter. Having studied the initiative and weighed the merits of our public support for some time, I can honestly say this will not shutter these important sectors. It will encourage them to grow correctly, by not irreparably harming key salmon habitat.
If we want a future in salmon, we need to have future-oriented business community. And that means tending to the needs of this impressive, home grown, renewable economy that depends on our careful stewardship.
Norman Van Vactor is president and CEO of Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation.