Happy New Year, Bristol Bay! These are a just a few of the key stories that defined the year.
It was a rollercoaster of a year for Bristol Bay in more areas than one.
This summer saw 62.3 million sockeye return to the bay, the largest run on record, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has records dating back to 1893. The Nushagak District set a new record for the largest single district sockeye salmon harvest at 24.1 million sockeye, accounting for more than half the reds harvested in the bay this summer. The Togiak District also set a record for sockeye return to its district. On the east side of the bay in the Naknek-Kvichak, Egegik and Ugashik districts, run timing was the latest on record. But in the end, every river made its escapement goal, and the $1.26 price per pound for sockeye drove the exvessel value up to a new record — $281 million for all salmon species. Bristol Bay’s bounty this year is particularly remarkable when viewed in context of shockingly low sockeye runs around the rest of the state.
Chignik communities on the Alaska Peninsula, in particular, are still struggling with the repercussions of the Chignik River’s devastatingly low sockeye runs. Because of low escapement, there were no commercial fishing openings that targeted sockeye salmon. The Alaska Board of Fisheries declared it a disaster in July, and the governor declared an economic disaster in August. The average exvessel value for each permit in the Chignik Management Area has been above $100,000 for past 10 years, sometimes double or triple that, and usually more than 50 permit holders fish. This year only six permit holders fished during the four open days of fishing. The average value they brought in was a mere $500 per permit.
In the spring, the Togiak sac roe herring fishery contended with bitter wind and rain. Despite the rough weather, about 20 seiners and a single gillnetter brought in the full quota of 17,000 tons of herring. ADF&G believes the Pacific herring population in the district is stable.
The Bristol Bay red king crab quota, on the other hand, is down by more than a third. While ADF&G said that it is difficult to determine what has caused the stocks to decline, biologists think that bycatch and warm waters in the Bering Sea could be contributing stressors.
It was an election year, and House District 37 will see a familiar face in office. Bryce Egmon will again represent the region in the Alaska House of Representatives. He beat Republican challenger, William Weatherby, with 62 percent of the vote. In the elections for governor and the state’s congressional representative, the district swung to the left of overall results. Ballot Measure 1, also known as the Stand for Salmon initiative, received 60 percent of the vote in the region, even though voters statewide rejected it by 60 percent.
A significant transportation development, Ravn Air Group is now the sole the provider of service from Bristol Bay to Anchorage. PenAir, which has long provided the primary, and often only, means to Anchorage for Bristol Bay communities, has been undergoing bankprutcy proceedings since August 2017. In February, Ravn began flying routes between Dillingham, King Salmon and Anchorage. In December, the company that owns Ravn Air Group finalized its purchase of PenAir’s assets, and PenAir will continue to operate under the Ravn Air Group. According to Ravn, neither PenAir nor Ravn’s destinations or flight schedules has changed.
It was also an important year for the controversial Pebble Mine and all those who support or oppose its development. In January, the Environmental Protection Agency reversed course on an effort to reverse Obama-era proposed restrictions on the mine. In other words, the proposed restrictions remain in place, and the EPA will have to make a decision about whether or not to finalize those restrictions before federal permits for the mine can be issued.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers initiated its process to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement for Pebble. The EIS will analyze potential detrimental and beneficial effects of the Pebble Project and develop alternatives to the proposed mine plan. The finalized EIS will serve as a tool for federal agencies as they decide whether or not to permit the copper, gold and molybdenum mine in Bristol Bay. The USACE held a scoping period from April to the end of June, which is the public’s opportunity to suggest resources of concern and alternatives to the proposed Pebble Mine plan.
The scoping period generated quite a bit of controversy, from the format of the in-person scoping meetings, several of which did not provide an opportunity to speak publicly, to the final summary of scoping comments, which organizations opposed to the mine said did not provide a thorough representation of stakeholders’ concerns.
Also of note, first Quantum Minerals backed away from the project in May. The Pebble Limited Partnership announced in 2017 that the company was considering buying into the partnership, and that the initial investment would help fund the permitting phase of the project. Since the Pebble Limited Partnership was formed, three other companies have pulled out—the Mitsubishi Corporation in 2011, Anglo American in 2013 and Rio Tinto in 2014. Northern Dynasty Minerals is currently PLP’s sole owner.
Another milestone is likely to follow the New Year. USACE expects to release its draft EIS in January 2019.