TU Bristol Bay Campaign Reveals Pebble Mine Struggle

I recently attended the Celebrate Bristol Bay event in NYC sponsored by TU, Tiffany & Co and the Bristol Seafood Development Association  and many other conservation-minded donors.  The food, donated sockeye salmon, was served six ways to Sunday by the talented chefs of many great area restaurants, including Oceana, Back Forty, The Mermaid Inn, The Dressing Room restaurant, and Bar on Fifth (at the Setai Hotel). TU CEO Chris Wood was there, as well as writers and naturalists, folk like Paul Greenberg, author of Four Fish, who spoke. Steve Rinella, outdoor rockstar, was in the audience. The acclaimed photographer Michael Melford was in attendance and his beautiful photographs of Bristol Bay scrolled behind the guest speakers. If one was on the fence about Pebble Mine, the speeches wouldn’t have necessarily persuaded you to jump over. At this event, TU was preaching to the choir. I was concerned we weren’t “occupying” the right minds.

Yet, it was a quiet, reserved, young man in the back of the room, manning reception, that caught my attention and whose struggle would surely sway you. At the end of the speeches, TU volunteer Ben Blakely appeared to be soaking it in. Something in his look said–don’t worry, we can win this thing. This was the final stop of TU’s Save Bristol Bay tour and Ben had been with these guys from the beginning, two weeks ago in Portland to Denver all the way to New York City. By looking at him, you wouldn’t think he possessed a maturity beyond his years, that this young man captained a commercial fishing vessel in Bristol Bay, that he was part of a family of fishermen who catch and process part of the 40 million wild salmon that are part of the Bristol Bay fishery. When you looked at him, with his hopeful smile and shy demeanor, you wouldn’t guess that his way of life and his home was so…threatened.

Ben Blakely and Melanie Brown, TU Bristol Bay Campaign Volunteers
Steven Rinella, writer, and Scott Hed of Sportsmans Alliance for Alaska

“Coming on this trip, I realized just how many people eat Bristol Bay salmon.” This year, Ben volunteered to join TU’s campaign and left behind his ship, the N20 (not an “exciting” name he says as he pointing it out in a National Geographic article in the Dec 2010 issue) to travel across the country and bring word of the impending disaster that is Pebble Mine. The proposed open pit mine that would devastate the land, eradicate wildlife and violate the Bristol Bay and its surrounds in search for gold, copper and molybdenum.

Ben told me that sometimes he feels, “just a bit selfish,” because he sees that people are coming out in droves to TU’s events to protest Pebble Mine, and support his way of life, his family’s livelihood (his father runs a processing plant and his siblings work in the business in some way).  Ben has come to learn what every man eventually learns, that there are in fact, “greedy individuals” out there (as Paul Greenberg calls them), who in their pursuit of profits, are willing to take from others.

Four Fish author Paul Greenberg speaks at Save Bristol Bay event in NYC

What makes Bristol Bay so special of course, is that it is indeed “the  last wild food” according to Greenberg. Something like 30-40% of Alaskan salmon are hatchery-supported, but Bristol bay produces forty million WILD salmon.  Maybe it should be a “strategic food reserve” as Greenberg suggested. Perhaps the Blakely family are not just fishermen, but soldiers, protecting a vital resource that nature has saw fit to make available and sustainable…if only we would leave it alone and just protect it.

Anglo American, with that oh so very ironic name, is the world’s largest diversified mining company, has spent hundreds of thousands, even millions on permits to mine the Bristol Bay watershed, and yet, like the “great white hunter” are eager to convince the natives that it would be great for the local economy while they rape the land. They don’t seem to realize that the 600 million dollar fishery provides 40% of the salmon we consume. As Greenberg says, its all very confusing how we love to eat salmon and yet, “we hate salmon, the way we treat  it.”

“We have a very strong chance we will stop the mine,” says Ben, with an optimistic twinkle in his eye. He’s counting, it seems, not just on the beautiful images of the bay, the bucket-list dreams of anglers around the world, the deep pockets of New York’s elite conservationists, but also the fact that we will remember that there are people on the other side of this thing.

Red Gold (about Bristol Bay salmon) is not just a poster child of one family. It’s many families.” When asked about Anglo American’s counter-marketing campaign, Ben remarks, “The marketing efforts have little science on their side, its purely emotional and it confuses the issue at hand.”

Still it seems this debate over Pebble Mine IS deeply emotional.  “We have blocked the chi of the world (with dams),” says Greenberg, but Ben and his family seem to act only out of love. They donated salmon to the chefs for this event. Mike Kowalski, CEO of Tiffany & Co, said, “the truth is, we believe we’re acting on our shareholders desires…There are certain values that exceed the value of gold.”

Tiffany & Co are signatories to the Bristol Bay Protection Pledge. Earlier Kowalski candidly admitted to me he was disappointed that even more jewelry companies hadn’t stepped-up and made a commitment (more than a dozen have so far, but De Beers is notably absent), but he expressed hope. He reiterated, he himself as CEO, wasn’t being “bold” by signing the pledge, but rather, research showed the vast majority of Tiffany consumers shared his view. Still, it seemed he was taking it very personal.

Chef Michael Nishan preps house-cured citrus bristol on salmon bay biscuits

So, I reiterate, this thing is indeed, emotional, for families, for shareholders and CEOs, for chefs and writers. It’s an emotion that is hard to pin-down but neatly surmised by chef Rick Moonen of rm seafood, a sustainable restaurant, “I don’t believe we should participate in any process that leads to the extinction of a species.”

We know now how it feels, and it sucks. Somehow, after all the lessons of history, after BP, after Exxon Valdez, after mountain-top removal and the extinction of Atlantic salmon, we feel…like we can’t be complicit by our silence anymore. We feel like trusting in our human capacity to love and protect the land, we feel like doing the right thing, as Ben is doing.

Saying no to Pebble Mine is a greater battle than for metal or flesh. It turns out, this is a battle for our values. Ben’s quiet determination and confidence to say no to Pebble Mine, to take a stand against greedy people who would make extinct the values that drive his entire family, indeed a community of fishermen to make a sustainable living from the land, is a call-to-action to preserve our humanity. Ben makes it clear, “when I’m not fishing, I couldn’t think of a better use of my time.”