‘A quarter-mile of corkline and mesh writhing and splashing’
Bristol Bay, Nick Hall
About half the world’s supply of wild salmon comes from a system of rivers, lakes, and streams in western Alaska that empties into Bristol Bay, a relatively shallow body of water roughly 250 miles long and 180 miles wide. Every summer, 40 million sockeye salmon enter the bay in schools of hundreds of thousands and mill in the estuaries of half a dozen large rivers. In the span of about four weeks in June and July, the salmon move into the mouths of these rivers, slowly at first and then, as if responding to an invisible cue, all at once. From the deck of a drift gillnetter on the flood tide of a clear afternoon in late June, you can look out across the water and see this happening. Four or five salmon will jump or roll simultaneously, and when you turn and scan the water you see that it’s not just a pocket here and there—salmon are jumping and splashing all around the boat, and you realize you’re sitting on perhaps half a million fish that have begun to make a push for the river. The first time I realized this, it was terrifying. Our net spooled off the stern into the water and came alive with salmon, a quarter-mile of corkline and mesh writhing and splashing. As I watched the net sink (which nets are not supposed to do) it occurred to me that there were more fish moving under us than the entire fleet could possibly catch and that if we didn’t start bringing our gear in right away, we would be in danger of sinking. Over the next four hours we hauled 16,000 pounds of salmon on board a thirty-two foot boat, plugging the holds and bringing the waterline up to the scuppers. … About ninety miles inland, underneath river drainages and salmon streams that form a substantial part of the bay’s watershed, sits the single largest deposit of gold on the planet, the second largest deposit of copper, and a decent haul of silver and molybdenum ore. Pebble Mine, as it’s called, is thought to be worth more than $400 billion—enough to change global minerals markets and, for the mining companies that own the rights, to justify spending about $5 billion to build and operate a massive open pit mine in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness. The mineable body of ore at Pebble is thirty times larger than the largest mine in Alaska. If built, the mine itself would be two miles long, a mile and a half wide, and about 1,700 feet deep. It would require the construction of more than 100 miles of roads and bridges, long-distance power transmission lines, pipelines for process water, pipelines for fuel, and a tailings dam 450 feet tall to contain the billions of tons of toxic mining residue the mine will produce. Any accident or earthquake (Pebble Mine sits on a fault line) will pollute Bristol Bay’s freshwater tributaries and wetlands with acid mine runoff, heavy metals, and process chemicals.