Resource Extraction: The Cost to Humanity

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Two Alaska Native women clean salmon along shore;
behind them a man uses a gaff to unload salmon from a skiff;
buildings along shore in background (Alaska’s Digital Archives)

Jun 6, 2010

For weeks we’ve been watching millions of gallons of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico.  Attempts to fix this man-made disaster that is threatening the lives and lifestyles of a number of species – from photo plankton right up to human beings who live along the Gulf’s shores and depend upon its abundant resources for survival – have been eye-opening.

Self regulation, lack of oversight, profits over people and greed led to this disaster.

How different is this from the situation of the first people of Alaska who rely on an unspoiled food chain to survive as they have for generations? Not very!

In Bristol Bay, big money is hoping to exploit minerals on the very edge of a healthy salmon fishery.  A man-made disaster stemming from pollution from the proposed Pebble Mining project would forever change the lifestyle of the people who depend on a healthy Bristol Bay for their livelihood.

The Anchorage Daily News reports that a study published this week in the science journal Nature by University of Washington biologists highlights the ability of salmon to adapt to natural changes to their environment.

The study said that although they’re all the same species, Bristol Bay sockeye comprise hundreds of populations, each adapted to its own river, stream or tributary. Some of the populations return from the sea after one year. Others spend two years foraging in the ocean before heading back to spawn. Some sockeye flourish when it’s cold and wet. Others do better in hot, dry years.

That variety means the species as a whole survives and thrives, even when bad weather or a shortage of food in the ocean hammers individual populations.

This diversity even helps them survive man-made spills…

After the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, pink salmon that spawned near the shore were devastated by oil that smothered their eggs. But pinks that laid their eggs farther upstream escaped the toxic effect and were able to help the species rebound.

The pink salmon were lucky. The Exxon Valdez was a finite disaster and attempts to reverse its life-changing effects began immediately. People were eventually compensated for their loss.

But what about the ongoing damage being done to the chinook salmon fishery by the pollock trawlers? Will salmon returning to the Yukon-Kuskoquim watershed  be able to adapt and survive as their numbers are depleted year after year as bycatch of the pollock industry? If not, should the companies that have caused the loss of livelihood  for the people of the YK be expected to compensate fishermen for their loss?

This is a matter of balance. The  six CDQ non-profits benefit greatly from the pollock industry and the people of the YK  are shareholders of their particular CDQ, Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Assoc. (YDFDA) They have a stake in their non-profits being successful as they are charged to help economic growth in their member villages. Where does this trade off when you give up the fish for ‘economic development’ ? We have to believe the return of the salmon to their rivers is much more important to them than a paycheck from some ‘development’ project. Fishing is their way of life – it’s what they do.

Taking away their reason to get up in the morning, to make sure their boats and nets are ready in the spring, to follow the seasonal openings so they can fish every allowable minute, to prepare and store the fish for winter – they live to fish. What if the chinook can’t adapt and this way of life is taken away?

Resources that support the lives and lifestyles of our fellow human beings have been placed in a position where an accident caused by lack of industry or government regulation can destroy entire ecosystems. The ongoing exploitation of one resource in favor of another may be slowly destroying an ancient way of life.

We can’t take the risk Pebble Mine would bring to the healthy fishery in Bristol Bay and we must stop the damage the pollock industry is doing to the people of the Yukon-Kuskoquim watershed.

The disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has opened our eyes to how little government or industry oversight is in place in  resource extraction.

We need to hold industry accountable and limit their access to resources that belong to the people, especially if extracting them threatens the lifestyle of  people fishing the ancestral waters in which they swim and living on the land they rest beneath.

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6 Responses to “Resource Extraction: The Cost to Humanity”

  1. fawnskin mudpuppy Says:

    well said… and a call to all of us who care not only about the environment, but, also, the need of peoples to retain their cultural interactions with nature.
    it is time to make our voices heard through activism. we each have the means to contact government re our positions on all matters pertaining to the preservation of our lands and resources.

  2. Bill of Wasilla Says:

    Yes, we need the oil and the minerals, but the fish are more important to this planet; the bowhead whale, the beluga, polar bear, ugruk, walrus… all more important to this planet. We have a hard problem to solve.

  3. Man_from_Unk Says:

    “The six CDQ non-profits benefit greatly from the pollock industry and the people of the YK are shareholders of their particular CDQ…..”.

    Man am I glad to see the CDQ program mentioned in this article but I have to point out a couple of questionable phrases from the sentence I quoted above.

    First is the question of “CDQ non-profits” – I think the PROFITS gained from the Bering Sea Factory Trawler Pollock Fishery has put a twist on the “non-profit” clause of the corporations. ADN reported an issue of the taxes owed by the CDQs awhile back. I think this issue is still unresolved with the U.S. Government.

    Second is the question of CDQ “shareholders” and that is a misconception if I ever saw one. The poor people of the six Western Alaska Coastal CDQ programs are not “shareholders” as in a REAL Corporation. They have little or no say in the direction of the CDQs.

    Eighteen years of the CDQs and finally people are starting to know what they are! A handful of greedy men kept the program hidden from the general public as they partnered in with the Pollock Fishery which ironically is destroying a hundreds year old culture and tradition of using Salmon as a means of livelihood. People are learning the truth and it’s about time.

  4. jim Says:

    Man from Unk:

    Should CDQs be reformed or eliminated? If they’re eliminated, should they be replaced with something else?

  5. ugavic Says:

    MFU-

    We agree on the CDQ, non-profit, trawler-profit, shareholders and all the misconceptions, etc.

    We do have a series of posts we have been working on for some time and hope to start publishing soon, on the quagmire that CDQs are.
    Right now we are trying to just get people use to the terms, possibly understand a little about how they can impact Western Alaska and a number of other issues surrounding them.

    The frustration I believe I hear/read in your comments are felt by many of us and thus our more in-depth posts that are coming. Mostly we hope to clarify and help more understand so we can motivate change!!

    Jim-
    I think most of us agree that IF we can get the CDQs to operate as they are intended, with the accountability and transparency they WERE SUPPOSED to have then they have much potential to make an impact on the villages (stakeholders/shareholders) in a positive way.

    It is going to take more than just the stakeholders to draw attention to this and become involved to solve this. The politics of the fisheries I believe can rival that of oil/mineral in many ways.

  6. Man_from_Unk Says:

    Jim, no, I don’t want to see the CDQs eliminated; the concept is a very good one for the Western Alaska Coastal Area where a big percentage of Alaska’s poor Alaskan Natives live. We need an economical boost to help off-set the high cost of living. Culturally and traditionally, we have lived off of the land and water systems for hundreds of years and fishing has been a way of life and still is. Except that in the last 30 years, the commercial sector became too expensive for the average Native. The CDQ program was intended to help us become involved in a lucrative industry.

    Reform is the best option because I think the idea can flourish with the right kind of rules, regulations, administrators and of course, State and Federal Oversight.

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