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Chasing the Sockey Salmon Migration
Posted 7.9.12 by Renewable Resources Coalition
In early summer, the biggest run of wild salmon left in the world reaches its peak. The sockeye salmon migration of Bristol Bay, Alaska, can number more than 40 million fish; the resulting fishing industry is worth more than $400 million. The award-winning author (and Times contributor) Paul Greenberg, author of the New York Times bestseller "Four Fish," is blogging via satellite as he travels down the Stuyahok River with the Alaska guide and longtime outdoorsman Mark Rutherford.
This year's fishing trip is particularly relevant. At present the Environmental Protection Agency is weighing whether to prevent the construction of a 10 billion-ton copper and gold mine in this remote area, something many fishermen fear could spell the end of this magnificent run. -Mark Bittman
BRISTOL BAY DISPATCH #1: A FUTURE COPPER AND GOLD MINE AND AN ANCIENT, UNKNOWN FISH
It seems only fitting that the first fish we catch and eat in the shadow of what could be fish-kind's worst nightmare would be one that 98 percent of Americans have never heard of (let alone eaten). Thymallus arcticus, known commonly as the Arctic grayling, is a member of the whitefish family (yes, that whitefish, as in smoked whitefish salad on a bagel) and is esteemed by anglers for its elegant dorsal fin, which spreads south of its head like an elegantly trimmed spinnaker. Ranging in size from 12 to 24 inches, hued with beautiful blues and silvers, it is sporty and jumpy and is, by any observation, a looker.
We encountered Arctic grayling on our first day in "the bush" of southwestern Alaska after having taken an Indiana Jones-style DeHavilland Beaver float plane and landed on a tiny lake 75 nautical miles east-northeast of Dillingham, Alaska. Unloading our rafts and gear, we humped it over tundra tussocks with our outfitter, Mark Rutherford, shouting out "Hey, mamma bear!" every time we reached a thicket high enough to conceal 1,000 pounds of grizzly. Alerting bears to your presence is the first step of the five-step "hold-your-ground" strategy Rutherford advocated for a grizzly encounter, and each of us was equipped with an air horn and tiny fire-extinguisher type deal full of peppery "bear spray." But we saw no mamma bears , and loaded into our rafts and started floating down the Stuyahok River, where we happily encountered the grayling with no interference.
Arctic grayling demand incredibly clean, cold water. And it's for this reason that they have not held their ground in the Lower 48. Once upon a time they could be found in great numbers in the northerly parts of the Western states, but municipal sewage, agricultural runoff and-perhaps above all-mining have so polluted American rivers that grayling can now be found in any numbers only in Canada and Alaska. The greater Bristol Bay region of Alaska is rich in grayling, so much so that the fish is considered something of an emergency survival fish. "You hear so many stories about people getting stuck in the bush and eating grayling," says Rutherford, who has lived in and around Alaska wild country for the better part of 25 years. "They're the fish that you can catch with some string and a bobby pin and a little bit of bait."
In a few weeks this same river we're floating on will, in addition to grayling, host bright red sockeye salmon as they complete their journey from the sea (more about the sockeye later). But the grayling are always here, no matter the season, as they have been for millions of years, feasting on the abundant invertebrate life. It seems no amount of fishermen stuck in the bush eating through them can deplete the supply. We ourselves made two small deductions from the grayling population. Chef Barton Seaver filleted and cubed two grayling we'd caught and tossed them into a pasta with pine nuts, mushrooms and locally grown oregano. Working around the complicated whitefish-style bone structure proved tricky but the fish was delicious.
Yes, all this can continue if plans for the continent's largest copper and gold mine, just a few miles from where we're fishing, do not go through. The Pebble Mine prospect will entail the mining and processing of 10 billion tons of ore in the most important salmonid nursery in the world. The project is the subject of an Environmental Protection Agency "watershed assessment," just completed and released to the public. From now until mid-July public hearings on the assessment are taking place all around the country. Those interested in attending the hearings can log onto Save Bristol Bay.
Advocates for the mine insist that the project can be completed safely without damage to the watershed and its $400 million dollar a year salmon fishery. It's a point hotly debated by fishermen. But whether salmon will suffer will be academic for the grayling. Grayling are the ultimate indicator species and demand incredibly clean water. It is hard to imagine a fish this pure surviving in the face of a mine this big.