FisherPoets read from their repertoire at Clemente’s Restaurant Friday in support of efforts to protect Alaska’s Bristol Bay.
The bay’s pristine headwaters could become a district for open-pit mining of copper deposits, and potential impacts on the environment and fisheries have fishermen and others keenly concerned.
Many Oregon and North Coast commercial fishermen travel to Bristol Bay to fish the large salmon runs that make it a premiere spot.
On Saturday, a panel of seven experts discussed the environmental impacts of mining, environmental law and philosophical decisions pertaining to climate change at the Columbia River Maritime Museum.
• Andrew Hawley, Northwest Environmental Defense Center, Lewis & Clark Law School;
• Scott Heppell, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Oregon State University;
• Daniel Schindler, professor, Aquatic & Fishery Sciences, University of Washington, an expert on Bristol Bay salmon;
• Joe Uris, retired history professor, Portland State University, and KBOO talk show host;
• Bill Carter, author of “Boom, Bust, Boom,” about copper mining and its risks;
• Benjamin Blakey, member of Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay;
• Brett Veerhusen, member of Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay.
The Kern Room was packed with members of the local fishing community and the Northwest, who took a break from the FisherPoets’ nightly events to learn more about the issue that morning.
“This is becoming the Obama administration’s largest environmental issue this term, and I think you will see this magnifying over the next six to 12 months,” said Veerhusen, of Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay, a coalition of fishermen working to protect the bay.
“We are facing a massive decision as a human race in the next 50 to 100 years between mineral extraction and food and water,” author Bill Carter said.
“A lot of times what we see in fights like this is mining companies or proponents of projects expand their timelines and expand their values to make things seem more important and more valuable, and shrink the other sides numbers,” said Hawley.
John Copp, of Portland, read poetry over the weekend as part of the FisherPoets Gathering and moderated the panel Saturday. He began reading at the annual gathering in 2005.
Bristol Bay had a lasting impact on Copp during his career as a gillnet fisherman. He retired from fishing in 2012 and spent most of his time fishing the bay. He remembers it as a floating zoo, with diverse wildlife ranging from various whale species and salmon to seabirds and brown bears.
“For me Bristol Bay is far larger than just a place to catch fish and make a few bucks,” he said. “After a while the bay, as an ecosystem, crawls inside of you and becomes part of who you are.”
Copp said fighting to protect the environment of Bristol Bay was the least he could do after it was so good to him as a fisherman.
“As I’ve aged, my appreciation for Mother Nature has grown and I feel a deep responsibility to do something of value in return for all those beautiful fish that I caught,” he said.
The mining project, commonly known as Pebble Mine, is of interest to a number of mining companies, who are proposing development along the watershed that flows into Bristol Bay.
The Environmental Protection Agency released a draft assessment in May 2012 of the watershed and surrounding habitat, and concluded a large-scale mining operation would cause losses to fish and wildlife and damage habitat.
Saturday’s panel had little more than an hour to stress the importance of the issue to audience members. They urged those in attendance to put pressure on politicians and the EPA regarding the mining project.
“It’s bigger than just Pebble Mine,” said Schindler, a professor of aquatic and fishery sciences at the UW. “Pebble Mine is going to pave the way to open the whole region up.”
Copp said that the map of proposed claims covers a huge area. “It’s not just that Pebble by itself is going to destroy the bay, it’s the whole exercise of turning it into a mining district that will put an end to it,” he said.
The panelists spoke about impending climate change and how this proposed site is part of a bigger problem.
“The Pebble Mine is simply a symptom of a larger problem,” said Heppell.
The watershed around Bristol Bay supports the largest salmon sockeye fishery in the world, according to the EPA, with an average run size of more than 1.3 million. It also supports a 160,000 average run size of chinook salmon, the assessment determined.
The bay is teeming with all five Pacific salmon species. The EPA’s assessment determined a large-scale mining operation would cause losses to spawning and rearing habitat for multiple species of fish and would diminish wetlands and habitat.
Veerhusen and Blakey, another member of Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay, spoke to the crowd about implementing specific policy to protect the region and putting pressure on politicians and the Obama administration.
The group is urging the EPA to take authority on the issue and enact a 404(c), a pre-emptive move that would veto permits and applications for the Pebble Mine.
“We are requesting this pre-emptive 404(c) because this is a creating a chilling effect on the economy up in Bristol Bay right now,” said Veerhusen. “This is creating uncertainty for a business that is currently thriving.”
“Politicians for the most part won’t listen to a long-term philosophical story about how in the future we’re going to need more fish and more clean water,” said Blakey. “Our job is to consolidate that idea that the fish are more valuable into a package that politicians can understand and agree with.”
The group is targeting specific politicians in districts with stakeholders and contacting those affected to make their voices heard.
“We want to put pressure on the administration and the EPA,” said Blakey.
The EPA assessment was up for public comment until July 2012. It then went into a peer-review process and a final assessment will be released later this year, said Veerhusen.
Friday’s poetry reading at Clemente’s Restaurant was part of a silent auction, with proceeds going to opposition efforts. The restaurant donated 15 percent of sales to Trout Unlimited, a nonprofit organization fighting to keep mining out of the region.
This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.