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Salmon Study Pits Fish Against Alaskan Mega-Mine
Posted 6.2.10 by Renewable Resources Coalition
An Alaskan bay bitterly contested by fishermen and miners has become the site of a landmark study on population dynamics — and the findings favor the fish.
Published June 2 in Nature, the analysis of Bristol Bay salmon quantifies a common-sense tenet of population dynamics: Diversity produces resilience. Had the proposed Pebble Mine been built in earlier decades, it’s possible the bay’s sockeye salmon fishery — the world’s largest, worth more than $100 million annually — might not exist today.
“The long-term maintenance of the Bristol Bay sockeye fishery has sometimes been almost totally dependent on the Kvichak watershed,” where the mine would be located, said University of Washington biologist Ray Hilborn. “If the entire Kvichak watershed was made nonproductive, then historically, that would have been totally disastrous.”
The mining industry has pushed to dig around Bristol Bay since a multibillion-dollar lode of gold and copper was discovered in the region. But extracting the minerals would also produce billions of tons of toxic waste, requiring the construction of Hoover Dam-sized walls to prevent it from spilling.
Environmentalists say that, given the region’s torrential rains, nearby geological faults and the industry’s track record on pollution, the walls would inevitably fail. The watershed’s sponge-like soil would deliver toxins into the salmon’s spawning grounds; even trace amounts would short-circuit their ability to navigate and reproduce.
In 2008, with the help of then-governor Sarah Palin, mining supporters voted down the Alaska Clean Water Act, which would have banned the discharge of toxic materials from mines and impeded the Pebble Mine plan. And, as the fight over the mine has dragged on, Hilborn’s team has continued to collect data from their Bristol Bay research station, where biologists have tracked salmon populations for the last 50 years.
In the new study, Hilborn plugged the the salmon numbers into models of population dynamics, hoping to quantify the role of population diversity within a single species. Biodiversity’s dynamics are appreciated at the ecosystem level, but while scientists assume they work the same way for individual species, research is only starting to describe that.
Hilborn calculated that Bristol Bay’s sockeye salmon populations would fluctuate ever more wildly as their diversity diminishes, and the effects of seasonal variability would be magnified. For now, a hot year may hurt one population, but another picks up the slack. With fewer populations, such resilience is less likely. If the salmon consisted of a single population, the fishery would need to be shut down every two to three years. Otherwise, the numbers would drop so low the salmon could hit a tipping point.
“People say that the Kvichak only produces a million fish lately. Three or four decades ago, it was 50 million fish. And we’d expect that at some point in the future, Kvichak will be the major source again,” said Hilborn. “And Pebble Mine is the tip of the iceberg. The whole area is staked with claims. Every salmon-producing watershed is where mining could go. The decision needs to be made: Is Bristol Bay going to be a mining area, or a salmon area?”
Image: Sockeye salmon in Bristol Bay./Ben Knight, Red Gold Film.
Read More http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/06/bristol-bay-salmon/#ixzz0pjvKNKHO
Wired Science - June 2, 2010