SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

Fish Factor

Pollutants could potentially disrupt all major fisheries in Alaska


November 02, 2009

Fish and shellfish will soon get more protection from mercury and other toxins in the atmosphere that end up in US waters. The Environmental Protection Agency announced last week that for the first time, it is putting the brakes on fossil fuel emissions from U.S. power plants. About half of the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels is absorbed by the oceans; the resulting off kilter chemistry is beginning to wreak havoc on sea creatures.

Many other polluters were forced to reduce emissions of toxic materials when the Clean Air Act was strengthened in 1990. But the Bush Administration ruled that power plants, the largest source of carbon dioxide and mercury pollution, were not subject to the rules. In February 2008, a federal appeals court overturned that ruling and ordered the EPA to regulate toxic air pollutants from power plants.

The EPA will be required by November 2011 to set controls for coal- and oil-fired power plants; oil is used to generate only a small percentage of U.S. electricity. Companies will have three years to comply after the new regulations go into effect.

Most of the atmospheric pollutants in the North Pacific come from emissions of coal fired power plants in Asia. That's bad news for Alaska -- water samples collected last spring from the Gulf of Alaska showed that acid levels are increasing more quickly and more severely than previously thought. The Gulf findings are similar to those seen in the Chukchi and Bering Seas.

"It seems to be more accelerated in Alaska because of the colder water temperatures. Cold water naturally holds more carbon dioxide (CO2), which controls the acidity levels in the water," said Jeremy Mathis, a chemical oceanographer at the University of Alaska/Fairbanks who did the water studies.

Increased acidity robs the ocean of calcium carbonate, the building block of sea creatures' skeletons and shells. Scientists estimate the ocean is 25 percent more acidic now than it was 300 years ago

"This isn't the case where we're going to talk about the impact 100 years from now," Mathis said. "This is an impact that we're going to see over the next decade that could potentially disrupt all the major fisheries in Alaska."

Between a pebble and a hard place

The most in-depth survey ever done on the proposed Pebble Mine showed an overwhelming majority of Bristol Bay residents strongly prefer their subsistence lifestyle to the promise of mining jobs. Pebble would be the largest open pit, gold and copper mine in North America, located in the headwaters of two of Bristol Bay's largest salmon-spawning rivers.

The poll was conducted by Anchorage-based Craciun Research, and sampled 411 Bristol Bay residents from six parts of the region between May 18 - June 2, 2009. Other findings: 97 percent said maintaining their subsistence lifestyle and resources is most important; 79 percent believe the Pebble Mine would damage the salmon fishery; in terms of jobs, 94 percent favored renewable energy development, 89 percent favored value-added fish packing, and 82 percent favored tourism that Alaska Native communities could be involved in over mining.

The big question now is: will the mine owners pack it in, as they promised?

"What Anglo American's CEO told us when we met in London earlier this year was that if local communities did not want the Mine, then Anglo American would not build it," said Bobby Andrew, spokesperson for Nunamta Aulukestai, a coalition of eight village corporations that commissioned the survey.

In September Andrew and other residents sent a letter along with the survey results to company CEO, Cynthia Carroll. The letter stated: "Opposition to the mine is overwhelming and unwavering despite significant outreach efforts by Anglo American and Northern Dynasty over the years. With that in mind, we ask you to keep your stated commitment to forego development of the Pebble mine given the ongoing community opposition."

No word yet from Ms. Carroll, according to Andrew.

"I haven't received a response, nor have the other signatories to the letter. I'm not sure when she will be responding," he said last week in a phone call from Dillingham.

"With the new Chairman of the Board, Sir John Parker, I'm hoping he will be making the same statement as Sir Mark Moody did, and the same thing as Cynthia Carroll - that they won't do it if the people nor the communities don't want it," Andrew said. "I hope he comes up with the same decision, because the opposition is increasing."

To download a copy of the survey report and the letter to Anglo American CEO Cynthia Carroll, go to:

Rocky road

Meanwhile, a report released by Earthworks last week claims that Pebble investors may be getting skittish since Anglo American "is cutting its capital expenditures this year by half to relieve pressure on its balance sheet." In addition to spiraling costs associated with political opposition, the report highlights other risks and uncertainties to the Pebble project, including: securing contested water rights to billions of gallons of water a year; a 100-mile road and 200 miles of transmission lines that must be built across rugged terrain; a new deepwater port must be built; and a facility capable of providing 600-700 megawatts of power.

Dams over 700 feet high also will have to be constructed to store an estimated 9 billion tons of mine waste that would remain forever in one of the world's most seismically active zones.

"No other mining projects in North America come close to the scale, the complexity and the technological challenges that face the Pebble Mine," said Dr. David Chambers of the Center for Science and Public Participation in Montana.

Fish Futures

Projections call for supplies of "whitefish" to increase in global markets next year. According to Intrafish, a report by the Groundfish Forum projects that supplies for the 10 key groundfish species will rise to more than 6.3 million metric tons (nearly 14 billion pounds), an increase of 5.4 percent. Any shortfalls in Alaska pollock will be made up by catches from Russia, projected at 1.65 million metric tons in 2010 (3.6 billion pounds). The Forum also projects a rise in cod supplies, with Norway, Russia and Greenland all expecting quota increases and the U.S. is expecting a jump in the Pacific cod quota to 395,000mt (870 million pounds). The Groundfish Forum represents six companies that fish for groundfish in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.

Fish kudos

The World Wildlife Fund is partnering with Kroger's - the nation's largest supermarket chain to develop a sustainable seafood sourcing strategy. Kroger is the parent company of Fred Meyer stores in Alaska. With 2008 revenues of $76 billion, Kroger ranks second in U.S. retail behind Wal-Mart, which was a leader in the movement to source seafood only from well managed fisheries. That's great news for Alaska, where managing fisheries for sustainability is mandated by state constitution.

This fishing column began in 1991 at the request of the Anchorage Daily News and now appears weekly in 20 newspapers and web sites. A spin off - Fish Radio - airs weekdays on 30 radio stations in Alaska. The goal of both is to make all people aware of the economic and social importance of Alaska's fishing industry to our state, the nation and the world. Thanks for your continued interest in Alaska's most fascinating industry!


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Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska

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