By David Clark and Brad Elfers
Sen. Mark Begich is in town this weekend, and we hope he’s reading the Juneau Empire. Fishermen have a lot at stake in Southeast Alaska, and growing numbers of us are greatly concerned about mining activity on the Canadian side of the border, upstream of our major fisheries.
Southeast is among the world’s best places for fishing, whether sport, commercial, subsistence or personal use. The fish we target are healthy, abundant and within close reach.
The 17 million-acre Tongass National Forest is a rugged nursery that sustains our fisheries, and for the third year in a row Southeast has been Alaska’s most lucrative region for commercial salmon fishing. On an annual basis, salmon contribute about $1 billion to the local economy and provide jobs for over 7,000 people, with sport, charter and personal use fishing accounting for about a third of the dollar value and employment.
In 2013, the Southeast commercial harvest exceeded 100 million salmon for the first time, and the catch value was nearly $220 million at the docks. As you can see, we have a lot to lose from ill effects of upstream activity in northern British Columbia. We need our Congressional delegates to engage on this issue.
Construction of the Northwest Transmission Line has enabled a dozen or so industrial-sized mining projects to move forward in the headwaters of major salmon-producing rivers that flow into Southeast Alaska. These developments are located on transboundary rivers that we depend upon for salmon. These Canadian mines would employ few, if any, Alaskans and have the potential to degrade the water quality and spawning habitat of these rivers.
Here is a glimpse of the cross-border activity our waterways would be subjected to:
• The proposed Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell (KSM) gold-copper mine located in the headwaters of the Unuk River which flows into Southeast Alaska’s Misty Fjords National Monument. This mine plan calls for three large open pits, an underground mine, an enormous tailings dump and large waste rock containments that will fill two valleys and contain billions of tons of acid-generating rock.
• The reopening of the Tulsequah Chief mine, located on the Tulsequah River just upstream of its confluence with the Taku River. The Taku is Southeast Alaska’s biggest salmon producer.
• The proposed Galore Creek mine, located on Galore Creek, which flows into the Scud River, a salmon-producing tributary of the Stikine River. Emptying out at Wrangell, the Stikine is a huge salmon-producing river for Alaskans. Tailings from Galore Creek would be submerged in Round Lake, which drains into the Iskut River, the Stikine’s major tributary.
• The proposed Schaft Creek mine located between Schaft Creek and Mess Creek, a tributary of the Stikine River. Mining the deposit would generate 100 million tons of waste rock in an area with extremely high seasonal water flow.
• The Red Chris mine near the headwater lakes of the Iskut River. Several hundred million tons of tailings and waste rock would be submerged in Black Lake, which drains into the Iskut River.
Each of these developments has the potential to release acid mine drainage, which can kill fish. At this point, there is little dialogue occurring between Canada and the United States, there is little policy in place to protect Alaskan waters and we are not being consulted as these B.C. mines move forward. We look to our elected leaders to use their leverage and negotiate protections for our livelihoods and the cornerstone of our economy.
Our Alaska congressional delegation has a critical role to play in this matter and we need Sen. Begich, Sen. Murkowski and Rep. Young to raise the alarm with the U.S. State Department. High-level officials need to initiate talks with Canada and use whatever means possible to ensure Alaska’s interests are protected.
Canadian concerns end at the border, but the rivers know no borders and neither do the fish. If you value fish, please help spread the word and urge our congressional delegates to take action.
This guest editorial originally appeared in the Juneau Empire on March 2, 2014.
David Clark lives in Juneau, is the founder of the Commercial Fishing Film Festival and has commercially fished in Southeast Alaska for 17 years. Brad Elfers has owned Alaska Fly Fishing Goods in Juneau for over 15 years