In late May, the Environmental Protection Agency revived proceedings under the Clean Water Act that, if finalized, would prevent destructive copper and gold mining in one of the world’s most valuable salmon watersheds: Bristol Bay, Alaska. As members of the nation’s fishing and seafood industries, we applaud this move and urge the EPA to finalize robust watershed protections as swiftly as possible.
Bristol Bay produces 50 percent of the world’s sockeye salmon, which in turn support 15,000 fishing and seafood jobs and sustain the area’s Yup’ik, Dena’ina, and Alutiiq ancestral ways of life. In recent years, Bristol Bay has been cresting the wave of one record-breaking harvest after another, at a time when salmon returns to other Alaska watersheds have trended downward. The nation cannot afford to put that abundance at risk, and full protection under the Clean Water Act would ensure that it never has to.
Regrettably, mine developers have latched onto a new argument to salvage the fate of their hapless investments: the urgency of solving climate change. In a recent press release, the CEO of the Pebble Limited Partnership, which owns mineral rights to the largest deposit in the Bristol Bay watershed, called the EPA’s move to protect Bristol Bay “a giant step backward for the Biden administration’s climate change goals.” Presumably referring to the large amounts of copper needed to mass-produce components of renewable energy systems and electric vehicles, this statement appears to be a last-ditch effort to fool the public into accepting a mining proposal so destructive that 2.5 million comments have been submitted opposing it since 2012.
The sight of a developer so cunningly transforming the incontrovertible urgency of climate change into a cudgel to beat back environmental scrutiny should give us all pause.
In New England, too, we are being told that jeopardizing fishery-supporting ecosystems is the price we must pay to solve climate change. Here, the argument is coming from offshore wind proponents, who are working hand-in-glove with the Biden administration to set a course to install 30 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2030 — from a baseline of almost zero in just eight years — and 110 gigawatts by 2050, with most of the initial development taking place off New England and the mid-Atlantic and limited environmental review taking place prior to the issuance of leases.
What would this scale of development look like? With today’s technology, 110 gigawatts would be almost 8,500 turbines — 137 times the size of the Vineyard Wind facility planned for south of Cape Cod. It would mean near-continuous construction on the continental shelf for three decades. While no one knows what the ecological impacts of such construction might be (and that’s precisely our point), evidence suggests they may include alterations of the acoustic and sensory environment, electromagnetic fields, and current and wind patterns, affecting a variety of species whose survival depends on these aspects of the underwater world.
Offshore wind off New England and mining in the Bristol Bay watershed are linked by more than just spurious ultimatums invoking climate catastrophe as the inevitable consequence of keeping these wild places wild. It also happens that offshore wind, which requires hundreds of miles of electrical cables measuring up to 11 inches in diameter, is the most copper-intensive of all renewable energy technologies. Every mile of cable laid across the ocean floor will spur greater pressure to mine copper in precious, irreplaceable places like Bristol Bay.
No one has more at stake from climate change than those who catch wild fish for a living. But fishermen won’t succumb to false dichotomies. Our leaders must get serious about pursuing solutions that work for both the climate and aquatic ecosystems — not one at the expense of the other. Addressing climate change is indeed urgent, but this urgency is no excuse for allowing reckless mining in Bristol Bay or potentially reckless energy development in New England waters.
Roger Berkowitz is founder and CEO of Legal Sea Foods Marketplace and president of the Massachusetts Seafood Collaborative. Sarah Schumann fishes commercially in Rhode Island and Alaska and coordinates the Fishery Friendly Climate Action campaign.