Alaska ranks ninth among seafood-producing nations in the world. Forty-two percent of the world’s harvest of wild salmon and 80 percent of the production of high-value wild salmon species such as sockeye, king, and coho salmon, come from Alaska waters. Salmon is the most valuable commercial fish managed by the state of Alaska and Bristol Bay is Alaska’s richest commercial fishery. In Bristol Bay alone, the 2008 harvest of all salmon species was approximately 29 million fish, and the value of the 2008 commercial catch topped $113 million. Bristol Bay has long been recognized as a vital contributor to Alaska’s commercial fishing economy, so much so that in 1972 the Alaska legislature determined that it was in the best interest of the state to establish the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve. This protected Bristol Bay fisheries’ longstanding and valuable commercial, subsistence, and sport fishing from oil and gas development. However, it does not protect against hard rock mining operations like Pebble.
All five species of Pacific salmon return to Bristol Bay to spawn in its rivers, including pink, chum, sockeye, coho and king. The waters of the region have long been an integral part of the state and local economies, providing thousands of sustainable jobs to Alaskans for generations. Commercial fishing-related jobs account for nearly 75 percent of local employment. The annual payroll for fish and wildlife-related employment totals $175 million2. Commercial fishing and the associated canneries have been the major industries in the area for many decades. In 2009 residents marked the 125th anniversary of commercial fishing in Bristol Bay.
The commercial fisheries management area of Bristol Bay includes eight major river systems: Naknek, Kvichak, Egegig, Ugashik, Wood, Nushagak, Igushik and Togiak. The Kvichak River, which runs from Lake Iliamna (the largest freshwater body in Alaska) to Bristol Bay, is home to the single largest salmon run on the planet. The Nushagak River hosts the largest king salmon run in Alaska.
Annual commercial catches between 1984 and 2003 averaged nearly 24 million sockeye salmon, 69,000 chinook, 971,000 chum, 133,000 coho and 593,000 pink. Bristol Bay’s productive salmon runs are remarkable even by Alaska’s standards, where the next largest commercial sockeye salmon run in 2008 was 4.15 million in the Alaska Peninsula/Aleutian Islands region.
Every year fish return to Bristol Bay in astounding numbers, largely due to the sound, scientific management of state and federal agencies. For instance, in 2008 the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon run produced approximately 42 million fish National Geographic listed Alaska as one of only three well-managed fisheries in the world, the others being Iceland and New Zealand. The forecast for 2015 season is expected to be the highest in 20 years, at nearly 54 million.
Protect Bristol Bay
With its astounding beauty and prolific salmon runs, Bristol Bay is a place of international importance. Its future is threatened by the proposed Pebble mine as well as hard rock mining on adjacent state and federal land. The Bristol Bay watershed must be put off-limits to Pebble and other large-scale mining projects.