Hi. My name is Christopher Wang. Since 2005, I’ve been a commercial fisherman in Bristol Bay, Alaska. I’m also a Bay Area-based chef and have a direct to market business which distributes salmon from Bristol Bay throughout California. I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you.
So I fish in Bristol Bay, Alaska and as some of you probably know itis home to the largest wild sockeye salmon run in the world. We’re talking on the scale of 50 million fish per year that returns to the region. All within an 8-week period. If you’ve never seen that level of abundance, it’s hard to imagine. When fishing is super hot, there’s days that our four-person crew is catching 20 to 30 thousand pounds a day. Upriver, the salmon turn red as they mature to spawn and, from a birds-eye view, these massive schools look like pulses of blood moving upriver.
It’s a fully sustainable, intact fishery and a lot of the success can be attributed to the strengths of the MSA. In Bristol Bay, the management strategy implemented has worked.
In the last three years, we’ve had two of the largest returns in recorded history.
Measures have been put in play to make it so that the small players can compete. Limited entry permits, boat length restrictions. By design, the fishery pushes to support the local communities that they are based out of.
Our management strategy uses an escapement system rather than a quota system. The salmon that get upriver are counted from counting towers and this escapement helps determine whether we can or cannot fish and for how long. By closing and opening the fishery throughout the season, the fishery biologists pulse the fish up the rivers in an attempt to ensure that a diverse gene class has the opportunity to return. This genetic diversity would be protections against disease or potentially against climate change.
One of the biggest successes for Bristol Bay in the last decade, has been a move towards quality over volume. Refrigerated Seawater cooling systems, salmon slides, bleeding all are different methods that have been combined to raise the quality of our catch leading to higher prices, a stronger domestic market for our product and, overall, less pressure to catch more fish.
So we have a thriving, sustainable in tact fishery valued at $1.5 billion annually. Producing 14 000 jobs a year. We also have a thriving subsistence community that relies on salmon as the basis of their overwinter diet. Salmon is everything to these communities. Mythological in ways. With continued good management lead by the MSA, we hope to ensure that this fishery continues to thrive.
But the Bristol Bay sockeye fishery faces an existential threat.
For more than a decade, we have been fighting a copper and gold mine proposed to be built just above the headwaters that feed the two major river systems that support the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon fishery. The proposed Pebble mine would be the largest open-pit mine in North America. 20 miles wide. The toxic waste from the mine would be kept in a tailings pond over 10 miles wide. Imagine, a body of toxic waste larger than the San Pablo and San Francisco Bay combined. This “pond” would be designed as containment for these heavy metals and mine slurry in perpetuity Forever. It seems kind of arrogant to believe that we can build a permanent structure “in perpetuity” along the edge of a region so seismically and volcanically active that it’s called the Ring of Fire. Sometime in the “in perpetuity” future, when the tailings dam leaks, it will spill its toxic sludge into the very rivers that the salmon spawn in. There are many examples of these permanent dams that weren’t so permanent after all. Mt. Polley, Kingston, Hopewell, Paine Creek – just to name a few.
We, in Bristol Bay, have the MSA to thank for a lot of the successes over the last 40 years. We have the largest, fully sustainable wild sockeye salmon run in the world. With proper management it will continue to support generations of indigenous, fishers and food systems. But all this great policy and management is completely ineffectual if we don’t protect salmon spawning habitat.
In 2014, the EPA used the Clean Water Act to protect Bristol Bay after finding that a large scale mine would have “unacceptable adverse effects” on the water, fisheries, and wildlife of Bristol Bay. With the change of administrations came a change of priorities and just this past summer, we lost that protection.
If the Water, Oceans and Wildlife subcommittee is serious about keeping US anadromous fisheries sustainable it must look to protect inland spawning habitat. If left unprotected, we will lose the largest wild sockeye salmon run in the world and we’ll be left fighting the same uphill battle that we now fight here in the lower 48. Where salmon runs used to be so strong that you could walk across the river on their backs. And we’re going to find the same thing, that all the great management and policies in the world, will not bring wild salmon back to an unviable river system.
This is why we must find a way to protect Bristol Bay.