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.