Commercial fishing and Pebble

Commercial fishing and Pebble

The latest article in the Anchorage Daily News about the Pebble Mine controversy focuses on an advertising war going on between the people of the region and the Pebble Limited Partnership, a joint venture between a Canadian company, Northern Dynasty, and a British company, Anglo-American, that hopes to build a large copper and gold mine at the headwaters of two of the river systems that feeds into Bristol Bay.  The article discusses radio and television advertising from both sides, which features a young Alaska Native woman from Iliamna on one side, and a whole bunch of people in the region speaking out against her message.

The young woman is a paid spokesman working for Pebble, with family ties to Iliamna Natives Limited, one of the Native corporations that currently enjoys lucrative contracts for support services related to the Pebble exploration.  There are two series of commercials featuring her: one where she shows, by “backpacking,” how far it is from Iliamna to Bristol Bay; the other where she discusses how the Pebble mine would improve the regional economy.  In the economics commercials, she states that while fishing is important to the region, the season only lasts a “few weeks” and discusses how half of the commercial fishing permits belong to outsiders.

In response, opponents of Pebble have put together a series of commercials focusing on how “the Pebble Lady” doesn’t speak for them.  These commercials feature Alaska Natives from various communities in the Bristol Bay region, and focus on either how misleading she is or misinformed she is; or simply, she must be getting paid good money to say what she does.

But the thing I find interesting about the article is how it seems to suggest that the war about Pebble is a war among and between Alaska Natives who live in the region.  On one hand, there are the Alaska Natives who, like the “Pebble Lady,” receive direct, personal financial benefit from the existence of the Pebble project.  On the other hand, there are those Alaska Natives who rely on fish to survive.  The article, and the advertisements themselves, overly simplify who is involved in the dispute.  In all reality, it is not just Natives vs. Natives.  Any visit out to the Bristol Bay region will show that a vast majority of those involved in commercial fishing are against it.

Everett Thompson is a third-generation commercial fisherman and skipper of the F/V Chuleyn.  Of Aleut descent, Everett has lived in Naknek his entire life.  He spent his first season on a drift net boat when he was 7 years old, and has been a skipper for the last 11 years.  He first learned of the Pebble project when he attended a public meeting in Iliamna in 2003.  After attending the presentation, he was open-minded about the project, but decided he needed to learn more.  In the following year while on vacation in Australia, he tried to learn more about how large scale, open pit metals mines operate.  He continued his research in 2005 by researching more about open pit metals mines in North America.  What he learned turned him against the project so much, that by 2007, he was staffing an anti-Pebble booth at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer.  And when he is not conducting public presentations, he is a living spokesperson for the anti-Pebble effort, flying a “No Pebble” flag from his boat while out catching sockeye salmon and passing out anti-Pebble stickers to other fishermen and helping them to be informed about the issues.

Everett is just one specific example; a careful eye will see anti-Pebble stickers all over the place in the Bristol Bay region, on boat masts, cargo containers, and even fish processing facilities.  I spoke to three brothers who each own their own boat, and they are all against the mine.  On my flight back from King Salmon to Anchorage, I sat next to a boat owner on his way home to Seattle.  He, too, was against the mine.  When asked why they are against Pebble, the fishermen, processors, and boat crew members all discuss the type of chemical processes involved in extracting gold and copper, the location of the mine, the sensitivity of the salmon to changes in habitat, and a variety of other issues grounded in science and history.  And while there is definitely emotion behind their answers, that emotion seems to be grounded in informed opinion.  My own observations about the opposition of commercial fisherman to the Pebble Mine development is reflected in a Craciun Research poll that concluded 85% of set netters and drift boat operators were against the mine.

And it is not just commercial fisherman operating in the Bristol Bay region who are against development of the mine.  When I was in Cordova last year, I saw anti-Pebble stickers everywhere, on cars and buildings, even on the front doors to main street businesses.  When I asked one fisherman why so many were against the mine in Cordova, he responded that there is a relationship between the Bristol Bay and Copper River fishermen, that they share in marketing and economic strategies, and that they are each attuned to what affects the other.  And, he responded, if something is bad for one fishery, it is likely bad for another.  If the State of Alaska would permit a massive mine at the headwaters of the Bristol Bay fishery, it would permit anything, anywhere.

From even my own limited experience in the commercial fishing world, I could tell that there were a few things that the “Pebble Lady” had wrong about commercial fishing.  For one thing, she dismisses the value of the fishing season by saying that it only lasts a “few weeks.”  When I was out in Naknek, they were only about halfway through a six-week fishing season.  In any given season, a drift net boat could expect to haul in about 120,000 pounds of sockeye salmon.  When I was out there, the processors had not yet announced what they would pay for a pound.  But, for sake of argument, let’s say the processors had set the rate at $1.20 per pound.  Most processors offered incentives for chilling and bleeding fish, offering as much as an extra ten cents per pound.  That means, the processors would be paying $1.30 per pound.  From the various skippers I spoke to, the cost of operating for a season, including fuel and maintenance, was around $30,000.  Most boats had two crewmen, being paid a percentage based on their years of experience.  Most of the crewmen I encountered were young or in college, working as crewmen only as a summer job.  Thus, in an average year, a boat captain could clear around $80,000 in a typical season, after paying for expenses and crew wages.  While it may only be a “few weeks,” I am sure that most Americans would not consider $80,000 a miniscule amount for an income.  And that is just from fishing for sockeye salmon.  Many skippers capture other species of fish in other fishing seasons throughout the year.

The other thing I learned that provided insight into one of the Pebble Lady’s claims related to the number of drift permits held by outsiders; that is, those from outside of Alaska.  For one thing, it is quite true that many permits are held by people from outside of Alaska, from Seattle to even Boston.  I encountered several boat skippers who were from the Seattle area in particular.  But I asked around and I learned why this was.  After statehood, a certain number of permits were issued to area residents, providing them economic opportunity and a means of providing for their families and communities.  But not everyone is a fisherman, and not everyone is a business man.  Many of these area residents took the opportunity to make some money by selling their permits.  The value of the permit depends on the perceived and projected value of the fishery going into the season.  In a good year, a drift permit could be worth as much as $150,000.  Thus, these local residents merely did what many people would do: liquidate a valuable asset to provide cash for the family, either to reinvest or use as income for the family.  And while many drift permits may be held by outsiders, that does not mean that all drift boat jobs go to outsiders.  It merely means that the business owners themselves are outsiders.   And that is no different from the Pebble Partnership, owned by Canadian and British companies.


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