Bristol Bay is an avian crossroads: four migratory flyways overlap there, with birds from Africa, Asia, the Central Pacific, and the Americas all migrating to and from the region, seeking out its diverse habitats and rich resources. Arguably, nowhere else on Earth is so important to so many birds from so many different continents.
Audubon Alaska tells the Environmental Protection Agency why Bristol Bay is important for millions of birds, which the proposed Pebble Mine would put at risk. (July 2012 comments on Pebble Mine)
The magnificent Bristol Bay on Alaska’s southwest coast is a place of many superlatives. Its offshore waters support commercial fisheries for king crab, herring, halibut, pollock, and cod, while the inner bay is home to a famous sport-fishing industry, the world’s largest commercial sockeye salmon fishery, and an irreplaceable subsistence harvest of salmon, the life-blood of traditional Native cultures in the region. A study produced by the University of Alaska Institute for Social and Economic Research reports that the Bristol Bay fisheries generate $1.5 billion in revenue annually and tens of thousands of jobs. An estimated 40% of total U.S. fish catch comes from Bristol Bay.
Bristol Bay holds 27 globally-significant Important Bird Areas and one of the world’s greatest concentrations of seabird colonies. It is an avian crossroads; four migratory flyways overlap there, with birds from Africa, Asia, the Central Pacific, and the Americas all migrating to and from the region, seeking out its diverse habitats and rich resources. Arguably, nowhere else on Earth is so important to so many birds from so many different continents.
Vast numbers of migratory waterfowl and shorebirds, including Emperor Geese and Marbled Godwits, use the wetlands, bays, and lagoons of Bristol Bay, while the offshore waters support millions of seabirds, notably Short-tailed Shearwaters and Black-legged Kittiwakes, and dozens of species of marine mammals, including the world’s most endangered whale, the North Pacific right whale. Along the Bay’s rugged coastline, more than a dozen seabird species nest on the rocky shores and cliffs, including enigmatic Whiskered Auklets and raucous Common Murres.
The Bristol Bay ecosystem is already under stress from climate change and warming ocean temperatures, but now two enormous development proposals threaten to squeeze the Bay between potential sources of massive environmental contamination—one seaward and one landward.
The Pebble Mine is a proposal for an enormous opencast mine north of Iliamna Lake in the Bristol Bay headwaters. The deposit is owned by Northern Dynasty Minerals, Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of a Canadian company. London-based Rio Tinto, the second-largest mining company in the world, owns nearly 20 percent of Northern Dynasty. Another London-based company, Anglo American, the third-largest mining company in the world, withdrew from the project in September 2013.
If developed as planned, the Pebble Mine would be the largest open pit mine in North America, about two miles wide and several thousand feet deep. A second underground mine to the east would likely use a block caving method to extract ore; although this produces less waste rock, it can cause massive subsidence at the surface, allowing water to percolate down and contaminate groundwater.
Over its lifetime, Pebble Mine is projected to produce 3 billion tons of waste, which Northern Dynasty plans to contain in toxic holding ponds held behind several earthen dams, each up to 700 feet high and several miles long. The largest of these dams would be bigger than the Hoover Dam and twice as high as the tallest skyscraper in Alaska, holding back 2.5 billion tons of tailings and diverting large quantities of water from the north and south forks of the Koktuli River and Upper Talarik Creek, thus destroying sockeye spawning and coho rearing habitat in the headwaters of Bristol Bay. All of this would be sited in one of the most active earthquake zones in Alaska.
The potential impacts of Pebble Mine would reach much farther than Bristol Bay. The plan includes a proposed road from the mine round Iliamna Lake to a port on Iniskin Bay in lower Cook Inlet. The proposal calls for taxpayers to foot the bill for 90 miles of road, an estimated $150 million.
Oil and Gas Leasing
In 2010, President Obama removed Bristol Bay from the offshore oil and gas leasing program, but there is no permanent protection in place.
In the 1980s, large, offshore tracts of Bristol Bay were leased for oil and gas extraction, but after the Exxon Valdez spill in Prince William Sound, Congress placed the region under a drilling moratorium and, in 1995, spent $100 million to buy back the leases.
This moratorium was lifted on June 29, 2007, when then-Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne approved the Minerals Management Service’s 5-Year Program for Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing. The Program included planned lease sales in Bristol Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.
Seismic exploration, contaminated discharges, infrastructure construction, and increased vessel traffic all pose grave risks to the region’s fish, marine mammals, seabirds, and waterfowl. Moreover, with the Bay’s high winds, powerful seas, variable ice, and cold temperatures, federal agencies predict that drilling in Bristol Bay would result in at least one major oil spill of more than 1,000 barrels, in addition to numerous smaller spills. Yet there is presently no feasible method for oil spill clean-up in rough seas or ice-laden waters.
Bristol Bay at a Crossroads
The 27 globally-significant Important Bird Areas (IBAs) provide essential habitat for millions of birds, including a threatened species, the Steller’s Eider, and at least 5 other bird species on the Alaska WatchList. (See a list of Bristol Bay IBAs and species at risk in this Audubon Alaska report.) These IBAs include wintering and staging areas for most of the world’s Emperor Geese and Steller’s Eiders and colonies and adjacent marine waters where more than a million seabirds nest and forage. In the event of an oil spill, any oil reaching protected lagoons, such as Izembek, could be there for decades. In these frigid waters, even a small amount of oil can damage a seabird's feathers, causing death by hypothermia.
Beyond these potentially devastating ecological consequences, there is a simple economic argument against the two developments: in contrast to the short-term profits of drilling and mining, the natural resources of the Bristol Bay watershed are renewable and contribute $2 billion each year to Alaska’s economy. This economic value is dependent on the region’s pure clean water, healthy habitat, and pristine wilderness setting. These proposed developments pose an enormous and unacceptable risk to Alaska’s economy.
The good news is that literally dozens of stakeholder groups, often at odds in the past, have come together with a firm, common voice in opposition. This diverse coalition includes commercial and sport fishermen, subsistence harvesters, conservation groups like Audubon Alaska, native communities, and concerned citizens from across the political spectrum.
“Staking a Claim: The Battle for Bristol Bay”- Audubon magazine’s article on Bristol Bay.