There’s reason to celebrate if you love to fish Southeast Alaska and understand the value of healthy wild salmon runs. There’s also reason to worry. Let’s start with the good news.
Southeast Alaska—home of the Tongass National Forest—recently wrapped up a record salmon fishing season. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, fishermen harvested nearly 105 million salmon this year. It was the first time in state history that fishermen caught more than 100 million salmon in the region. The overall value of the 2013 harvest is still being calculated but preliminary numbers put it at $220 million, making it Southeast Alaska’s most lucrative commercial salmon season ever. In the last two years, Southeast topped the charts for being the most valuable region in Alaska for commercial salmon fishing. The main reason salmon thrive here? Southeast Alaska still has large tracts of intact wild habitat that salmon need to reproduce. There’s low human population density and Fish and Game manages the stocks carefully.
But against the backdrop of the Southeast Alaska salmon success story, a threat looms. Planning is under way for a large-scale copper and gold mine in northern British Columbia, a massive project with the potential to leach pollutants into one of Alaska’s largest king salmon- producing rivers, the Unuk. The deposit lies in the headwaters of this 80-mile-long river that drains into Alaska’s Misty Fjords National Monument. Misty Fjords is a spectacular playground for tourists and locals alike with an array of marine and terrestrial wildlife, including seals, sea lions, whales and bears.
The mine project that threatens the Unuk and Misty Fjords is called KSM, short for Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell. The Vancouver-based company seeking to develop KSM describes it as “one of the largest undeveloped gold projects in the world” with a proposed development footprint of some 6,200 acres. Currently open for public comment, the project is located about 20 miles from the Alaska border.
The problem for Southeast Alaska is KSM threatens the region’s vibrant and established commercial and recreational fishing industries, as well as the area’s thriving tourism industry, yet it offers few economic benefits. Most of the jobs would go to Canadians. And if built, KSM would generate some 3 billion tons of waste rock and 2 billion tons of tailings, 70 percent of which would be acid generating. As anglers well know, acid mine drainage is a toxic stew that can kill fish. In the case of KSM, the waste would have to be contained and treated in perpetuity. If any of this mine waste found its way the Unuk, it could damage Southeast Alaska’s reputation as a place that sustains wild salmon and pristine landscapes. The salmon fishing and tourism industries together contribute an estimated $2 billion to the regional economy and employ close to 20,000 people in full-time and seasonal jobs.
TU is spreading the word that the KSM project is risky and that people who care about wild salmon and the habitat they need should have this on their radar and weigh in. Use this online form to make your voice heard and please act before the comment period ends on Oct. 21.