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Steamboat Magazine

Bears, Salmon and the Pebble Prospect

11/24/2020 12:15PM ● By Jennie Lay

A coastal grizzly devours salmon and watches upstream with her cub in tow on the Katmai Coast in southwest Alaska.

Editorial opinion and photography by Jennie Jay

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS- Each morning on the Alaska Peninsula, our play date began with chest-high waders and a five-gallon bucket. We’d leave the rustic comfort of the M/V Ursus, a Bering Strait crabber-turned-research-boat, and meander ashore on a small skiff to observe hulking coastal grizzlies in the Katmai Wilderness. In this scenario, think of me like a watchful nanny in nature’s playground. I’d sit silently atop my bucket at the water’s edge, eager to spy any incoming Ursus arctos. 

This was August. The rivers were jam-packed with salmon, and brown bears were everywhere. 

An uprooted tree became a jungle gym at the mouth of a cold salmon stream. Lodged in the braided delta of sand, pebbles and seaweed, tides ebbed and flowed around gangly branches. An armada of salmon, a mixed run of chum, humpies and sockeye, swerved between snags, wriggling undeterred toward spawning grounds deeper inside the roadless expanse. A pair of 7-month-old roly-poly grizzlies climbed and crashed from waterlogged limbs, untempted by the fish feast below. 

Catching salmon is an art, and the toddlers left the slippery toil to their voluptuous mama. She skillfully plucked fish from the water, skewering them for eggs and prime red filets. The shoreline reflected her slaughter. 

Wildness was functioning at full throttle in this pristine ecosystem along the Shelikoff Strait, directly across from Kodiak Island. Being in the thick of it made me feel raw and real. I felt brave, and I also felt safe. Days surrounded by grizzlies were a welcome escape from mundane business back in Colorado. 

In truth, there’s been a stretch of tangible and ambiguous loss in my life. Untarnished nature made me swell with hope. 

A pair of sassy teen bears tussled in the tall grass behind me. A lone sow trolled the distant shore for clams. A scraggly boar lurched downstream, snagging salmon and encroaching on the playful twins, much to Mom’s chagrin. Seagulls squawked their incessant soundtrack. 

Spending a week in this wilderness, led by the stoic brilliance of bear biologist Teresa Whipple, I was dumbfounded by the delicate balance of grizzlies and salmon on an unmarred landscape. As our boat moved between bays, we saw rafts of otter and orcas on the hunt. We waded through waters thick with moon jellies and traced the footpaths of bears crossing mock glaciers on the surrounding peaks – “snowpack” that binoculars revealed to be lingering ash from 1912 Novarupta, the largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century. 

That cliché about “crossing on the backs of salmon” … it makes perfect sense now. 

Knowing that Pebble Mine, a proposed open-pit gold, copper and molybdenum mine, was moving toward permit approval just around the bend at Bristol Bay, I started to lament the plague of humans. A massive industrial complex with a port, a power plant, roads, pipelines, dams, tailings ponds and a containment pit, Pebble would be North America’s largest mine, squarely at the headwaters of the watershed. The mine would be an existential threat to one of the world’s most productive salmon runs. The sockeye fishery is essential to jobs, recreation and more than 30 Alaska native tribes that depend on a healthy salmon run to support their traditional subsistence ways of life. 

Channeling author Bill McKibben, I wondered: Is this the end of nature? Are we willing to go there? 

And if an argument to protect species doesn’t prevail, what about the economy? Wedged between Katmai and Lake Clark national parks, Bristol Bay supports a $1.5 billion fishing industry. Former Steamboat Springs Chamber public relations manager Molly Killien Blakey lives and works in the heart of all this. 

Molly met her husband, Ben Blakey, when she left Colorado a decade ago to work on the conservation campaign to protect Bristol Bay. At the time, he was a gillnetter in Bristol Bay, but now they’re based in Sitka with their three young boys, Cyrus, William and Julian. They own and run Northline Seafoods in Bristol Bay, a salmon processing company that buys salmon directly off boats on the fishing grounds, then freezes the fish on the spot with ultra-low temperatures. Their sustainable zero-waste processing is revolutionary in the field. 

With the resurgence of Pebble Mine permit applications, the Blakeys subsist alongside one of the longest-running conservation battles in North America. “People have been fighting decades on this issue, and it feels like it’s coming down to the next six months,” Molly says. “This is my family’s livelihood. This is our community’s livelihood. It’s really scary. You can’t trade one resource for another.” 

This year, 20 million pounds of salmon came out of Bristol Bay. The runs are the linchpin for the region’s nature and economy. Even mining executives have acknowledged publicly that a Pebble Mine mishap could damage the fishery. 

“We’ve been fighting the mine since 2005,” Ben says. “It’s the wrong mine in the wrong place, but it keeps coming up. It refuses to die.” When we spoke early this fall, another environmental impact statement for the mine had been rejected, but it was pending a revision. “Whenever there’s money to be made at the expense of the environment, there will always be someone who thinks the tradeoff is worth it,” Ben laments. 

Science doesn’t support such a trade. Speaking with a group of journalists in September, marine ecologist and former NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco warned, “There is only one ocean, and it’s critical to our future.” Whereas we once touted dilution as the solution to pollution, “the folly of that has become crystal clear.” The oceans, she said, are essential to climate change solutions – a so-called “blue economy.” 

“You can’t recover something that you kill,” Lubchenco said. And by all accounts, Bristol Bay harbors a rare and fruitful salmon run that can’t be rebuilt if Pebble fails. Science proves that a century of dams and other developments have decimated salmon populations all the way down the West Coast. 

Standing among Katmai’s splashing salmon and bears, I heard nature loud and clear. It was not gasping. It screamed of freedom from human greed and forward progress. To imagine that clean turquoise water and salmon and bears can heal from a toxic mine is to be complicit in their destruction. 

Will we give salmon and bears the dignity they deserve? We can decide to sustain an intact ecosystem and the humans who subsist in harmony with it. We can opt to protect beauty, to stand with a place of wonder, to uplift the wildness in nature’s playground.

Jennie Lay is a freelance journalist and editor in addition to being the adult programs coordinator at Bud Werner Memorial Library. 

• Learn more about the ongoing fight to protect Bristol Bay, and see what’s at stake:

• Buy Molly and Ben Blakey’s wild Alaskan salmon here in Colorado:

• Watch up-close Katmai bear explorations captured by Rich Lay: “Easy’s GrizzLays” YouTube channel

• Explore the Great Alaskan Grizzly Encounter: