For salmon, Bristol Bay is like a warm reception hall. Every summer, after years of navigating the wild waters of the Pacific Ocean, tens of millions of salmon arrive, seeking entry to the freshwater rivers that flow into the Bay. The fish surge upstream, instinctively navigating the clear waters of the intricate network of streams and lakes where water flows freely for miles and miles. In this pursuit to spawn, salmon also form a cornerstone to  a natural cycle that supports whales, birds, brown bears—and people.

Of the five salmon species fished in Bristol Bay, the sockeye fishery alone is worth $1.5 billion each year. In fact, nearly 20,000 jobs throughout the United States annually depend on the health of this run. Beyond the economic benefits, some 4,000 Bristol Bay locals, including many native Yup’ik and Dena’ina, depend on these fish, along with other subsistence foods  for 80% of their protein.

These fish form an integral part of the food chain for wildlife, from the offshore ecosystem of Bristol Bay all the way up to the headwaters. While belugas and orcas hunt offshore, brown bears and eagles in the tundra and hills above fish for their next meal. Even in a lake hidden hundreds of miles away in the bay’s headwaters, one of the planet’s only population of freshwater seals feast on the salmon.

These fish are the red blood cells that bring life to this region, the rivers the arteries that carry them. When those arteries become poisoned, then the system starts to break down. Now a proposal for a large, open-pit copper and gold mine risks ruining the natural resources that people and wildlife have relied on for centuries.

Originally posted 2018-04-19 12:00:00.

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