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Save the salmon by eating salmon

JOEL CONNELLY
Seattle Post Intelligencer
November 22, 2009

According to the promoter of a massive Alaska mine project, its site adjacent to two of the world's greatest salmon streams, we should boycott a baker's dozen of Seattle-area restaurants.

The eateries' sin is that they are serving up sockeye salmon with a warning that the great Bristol Bay fishery, which supports 12,000 jobs, could get socked if tailings from the proposed Pebble Mine get into the rivers.

"It's kind of the last unspoiled place on earth from the standpoint of salmon," Kevin Davis, co-owner of Seattle's Steelhead Diner, told a Thursday night dinner at the Pike Place Market restaurant.

Here's a message to Seattle-area salmon lovers: Eat up and butt in!

Seattle and Puget Sound-area fishermen and their crews probably account for a tenth or more of those Bristol Bay jobs.

Our once-great Columbia-Snake River sockeye runs were along ago decimated by dams. In the Great White North, the Fraser River sockeye fishery crashed this year. The Canadian government, yielding to public outcry, has belatedly launching an inquiry to figure out why.

The restaurant boycott call came from Gail Phillips, a former speaker of the Alaska House of Representatives who heads a pro-mine group called Friends of Pebble. She denounced opponents for mounting an anti-mine campaign while the state permitting process is still underway.

Alaska has the most environmentally safe resource development projects in the nation, Phillips once told a meeting of the state's Resource Development Council.

Huh?

Didn't the Bush administration fine British Petroleum $20 million for a 2006 oil spill at Prudhoe Bay that dumped 267,000 gallons of oil onto the tundra?

When the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was under construction, and Prince William Sound fishermen worried about tanker spills, the Anchorage Times delivered a famous condescending put-down:

"The fears about damage from oil spills are like the fears of Henny Penny when she ran to tell the king that the sky was falling."

Well, that was before the Exxon Valdez catastrophe spread oil onto beaches from Prince William Sound to Kodiak Island to Katmai National Park, and devastated what had been a healthy fishery.

The Alaska Department of Natural Resources is about to receive data on what would be the largest open pit mine in the world. The giant Anglo American conglomerate (DeBeers) is the biggest player in the Pebble Project, with Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty as a junior partner.

The Alaska DNR is not known for turning down mines. Yet, Phillips has denounced critics as "bullies" trying to disrupt what she called "our fair and equitable permitting process."

"What truly bothers me is seeing an attempt by an organized group to prohibit the permitting process to go forward with the Pebble mine: This attempt to limit the process is so unfair that it is un-Alaskan and un-American," she told the Resource Development Council.

Quite the contrary: It is very American to influence a decision that impacts your job. The Bristol Bay fishery plays a major role in Alaska's economy.

The Pebble Project would be a huge undertaking. It would mean construction of a 100-mile-long road, a 600 to 700 megawatt power plant, and a deep water port. Several large earthen tailing dams, at least three projected to be over 700 feet high, would keep toxic wastes out of the environment.

"The biggest concern, to us, is the dam and tailings," said Lindsey Bloom, an outspoken Bristol Bay fisher.

And look at the corner of America where the mine would be located.

It is just north of Iliamna Lake, the largest body of fresh water in Alaska. The Kvichak River, flowing out of the lake, is home to as many as 20 million returning salmon. The mine site is between two tributaries of the Nushagak River, spawning habitat for the largest king salmon run in the world.

The mine site is less than 20 miles from Lake Clark, namesake of the national park that protects the "Alaska Alps". Katmai National Park, famous home to salmon-feeding brown bears, is 30 miles to the south.

The award-winning film "Red Gold," which celebrates Bristol Bay fisheries, features solemn promises by mining executives that the Pebble Project won't go ahead it poses any danger to salmon runs.

But in such an unspoiled place, "You don't get a second chance to do it right the first time," said Bob Waldrop, director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association.

Seattle is the gateway to Alaska. "Butting in" means working with fishermen, restaurant owners and seafood processors to keep the big boys honest. It would help if Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., penned a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency urging close scrutiny of the project. As overseer of the EPA's budget, and a guy who fishes in Alaska, Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., can help assure that potential impacts get assessed honestly.

The ordinary citizen has the most enjoyable challenge. Do your bit for Bristol Bay by dining at restaurants on Phillips' boycott list. Your guide includes:

Art of the Table, Chisco, Emmer&Rye, Flying Fish, Persimmon, Ponti Seafood Grill, Rover's, Steelhead Diner, Tilth Restaurant, Tilikum Place Cafe, the Pike Brewing Co., Palace Kitchen and Etta's Seafood.

Bon app├ętit!