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Pebble panels identify gaps in baseline study
Posted 10.15.12 by Renewable Resources Coalition
A second week of science panels, aimed at better informing stakeholders about whether a massive mine in Southwest Alaska can co-exist with the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery, is revealing the gaps in research by mine proponents.
The research has not answered the question "what fraction of the Bristol Bay resources will be affected," said panelist Hal Geiger, a retired biologist and biometrician who spent years with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
"We are lost in the details and we need to have this explained to us in a way that is easier to understand and gives us some confidence."
Geiger, who now heads a fisheries research group in Southeast Alaska, is one of more than a dozen panelists from all over the United States participating without pay on panels dealing with a range of topics from geology and geochemistry to fish, wildlife and habitat. Each of four separate panels is being facilitated by The Keystone Center, a Colorado based organization hired by the Pebble Limited Partnership to present the mine proponents' case to the public. The panelists are serving without pay, with their travel and expenses covered, through Keystone, by the Pebble Limited Partnership. They are tackling sections of the 27,000 page environmental baseline study compiled by the PLP.
The whole idea behind the panel discussions, spread over a total of six days at the University of Alaska Anchorage campus, is to help stakeholders make better-informed decisions about the critical choices before them, according to Keystone.
The majority of residents of the Bristol Bay region are strongly opposed to the mine, which they feel would be destructive to the multi-million dollar commercial, sport and subsistence fisheries.
Geiger was part of the panel on fish, wildlife and habitat Oct. 9-10, along with Stanley (Jeep) Rice of the Alaska Fisheries Center Auke Bay Laboratories, Charles (Si) Simenstad, a research professor at the University of Washington's School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences; and Mike Stone, retired chief of fisheries for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
Geiger, who has served as president of the Alaska chapter of the American Fisheries society, began his career with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game as a biometrician in 1982, and served as the chief biometrician for the Division of Commercial Fisheries in the late 1990s.
Geiger said he was critical of the way Pebble scientists estimated abundance of salmon in the mine study area. "They produced index counts and neither I nor anyone else can explain what the relationship is between those index counts and the true number of salmon in the affected area," he said. "What Pebble needs to do is find a way to estimate the number of salmon who spawn in the affected area.
"If Alaskans are going to make tradeoffs between mineral resources and salmon resources, I've tried to focus on the question 'has Pebble really provided the information to understand what those tradeoffs are. I don't think we have the information to understand those tradeoffs," he said.
Each of the panel discussions has begun with an overview of the particular area of the baseline study from Pebble scientists. Then the panel of scientists gets into the discussion, asking a lot of questions of Pebble's scientists, and then the public physically present and listening over an Internet connection, are invited to ask questions of the panelists.
The last of the panels, on socioeconomic and cultural dimensions, was slated for Oct. 10-11.
Among the key critics of Pebble's baseline study is Carol Ann Woody, a prominent Anchorage-based fisheries scientist who has done a great deal of field work in the Bristol Bay watershed, including the area where the Pebble Limited Partnership proposes to build the mine.
After assessing the salmon escapement studies in Pebble's document, Woody had several concerns about how salmon spawning and escapement were determined in that report.
She questioned the approach, data quality and intended uses of the data. "Total spawning salmon or escapement was determined using intermittent aerial helicopter surveys in main stem rivers and select tributaries; most tributaries were not surveyed," she wrote in her assessment of the document. "Aerial surveys are unreliable methods for estimating total salmon escapement due to bias (undercounting of fish) and low precision (high variation).
"Total salmon escapement is not estimated," she said. "No detailed methods, models, assumptions or results are presented for total escapement estimates."
Keystone's Todd Bryan, who is overseeing the series of panels in Anchorage, said the panel discussions are identifying places in the baseline studies that need to be improved, and also confirming things about the baseline studies that Pebble consultants have done well. He said he does not think the panel discussions have tipped the balance one way or the other.
John Shively, Pebble's chief executive officer, said he expects the panel discussions will have some impact. "We have had a lot of recommendations and we will look at them," he said. "That's why we are doing this.
"Sometimes people confuse methodologies to get at the science. Because we are using one methodology and there is another methodology, that doesn't mean we are using the wrong one," he said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which produced its own draft environmental assessment of potential impact of mining on the Bristol Bay watershed, has already held public hearings and had a peer review by an independent panel of scientists. The EPA's final report is anticipated to be complete by year's end.
You can reach Margaret Bauman with comments and suggestions email@example.com