GUEST COMMENTARY: ‘Open for business’ means Alaska must protect Bristol Bay

Bristol Bay’s salmon fishery raised me. I spent my summers commercial fishing with my brothers and later helped my family run a seafood processing company.

Today I have a young family and business of my own, Northline Seafoods, a salmon processing company that uses ultra-low-temp freeze technology and an innovative business model that allows us to pay our fishermen more for their catch. We just finished our first season in Bristol Bay, which had its second-largest commercial harvest on record.

The biggest threat to the success of my business and my family’s future is the proposed Pebble mine project. Worse than the threat of the mine itself is its current permit process, which is being increasingly compromised by politics and lacks the scientific rigor and transparency that Alaskans have been promised for years.

I invested in Alaska because there is tremendous economic opportunity in our fisheries, especially in Bristol Bay, where we have record-high salmon runs, intact habitat and a regional brand that commands a high market price.

The value of the Bristol Bay salmon industry has increased significantly over the last decade — progress that is a direct result of financial investment and the innovative energy of Bristol Bay’s fishermen, processors, and thousands of individuals who participate in the fishery every summer.

Every year, we continue to improve fish quality, reduce fish waste, increase efficiencies in processing, and grow consumer loyalty. We have only begun to scratch the surface of Bristol Bay salmon’s full economic value.

Bristol Bay’s salmon fishery has been going strong for more than 130 years, and my personal stake in its economy are a solid bet on a consistent natural resource — that is, if you could take the threat of Pebble out of the picture.

The Pebble mine is just a proposal at this point, yet it’s already having a negative impact on Bristol Bay’s fishery and businesses like mine.

This past spring, our largest customer expressed concern about the Pebble mine and market risk to Bristol Bay salmon. The controversy and environmental threats posed by the Pebble project are a dominant theme in national news coverage of Bristol Bay salmon. As we expand distribution of our sockeye into new markets we now must also educate and inform consumers on Pebble. Consumer perception of Bristol Bay salmon cannot be defined by open-pit mines and tailing pond waste.

It’s shocking to see our federal agencies turn a blind eye to all of this and instead let politics drive their analysis and decision-making.

In Pebble’s permit review, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completely downplays Pebble’s potential impacts on Bristol Bay’s fishery, basing their conclusions on incomplete information and false assumptions.

In Chapter 4 of the key document called the draft environmental impact statement, or DEIS, the Army Corps goes so far as to say that a change in the market reception of Bristol Bay fish is “not expected to occur.”

I know that I’m not alone in my disappointment with the Army Corps’s DEIS; both the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association and Bristol Bay’s biggest seafood processors submitted strong comment letters to the Army Corps documenting the glaring gaps and flaws.

Bristol Bay’s seafood processors went so far as to request that the Corps “withdraw the DEIS and reinitiate an analysis of the Pebble Project of the appropriate scope and depth, as required by NEPA.”

I echo their request and look to Alaska’s elected leaders to restore integrity and public confidence in this flawed permitting process. Both Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan have been strong champions for Alaska’s fishing industry in the past, and I appreciate Murkowski’s recent acknowledgement that the Environmental Protection Agency’s concerns with the DEIS are “substantial.”

Because the Army Corps is unwilling to take an honest look at this project, we need our senators to step in and make sure our questions and concerns are addressed before any permits are issued. Alaskans deserve to know the truth, especially Alaska businesses whose assets, investments, and employees are on the line.

If Alaska wants to have a healthy economy and attract new businesses like my own, we need to uphold rigorous, science-based permitting and make sure we protect places like Bristol Bay, which make Alaska — and Alaska’s economy — work.

Ben Blakey lives in Sitka and is the president and co-founder of Northline Seafoods.

09/04/2019 - 8:54am