Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Last Place on Earth

Glassy water in Ugashik.

Streams of stubborn white clouds fight the encroaching high pressure, gripping for life to the snowcapped summit of 7000 foot Mount Chiginagak some sixty miles to the southeast. The view that has been teasing me for the past two days is beginning to materialize. Steam lazily  piles off the mountain's lateral vent, reminding all that while today the dragon sleeps,  tomorrow she may waken in a foul temper.  

The forecasted winds of ten knots have not yet arrived; I am thankful for the gift of a steady boat as I calmly  float in the watershed which carries a vulgar reputation for big winds, nasty river bars and challenging working conditions.  A permeating scent, the mixture of bag balm, sunscreen and fish assaults my nostrils; offensive but none the less effective in masking the rotten stench of three men living and working on this little boat for the past 21 days.  

KDLG, the local NPR station breaks the peaceful silence.  Open Line callers ramble on for what seems an eternity, uninterrupted by the patiently polite host. Radio waves carry messages of love to fisherman and unhurried greetings to relatives in villages so remote that cell phone towers have yet to invaded their skylines. 

The season is winding down.

We caught 3000 pounds of fish yesterday and are within spitting distance of our 100,000 pound goal.  While the psychological pressures of this line of work wear heavily, a successful harvest and being able to count the remaining boat days on one hand seems to keep us all acting benevolently towards each other.  A steady stream of jumpers and sharp dorsal fins breaking the surface of the shallows near the muddy shore affirm a late push of fish are riding the flood upstream.  

Sometimes I can't believe this is all real.

Less than one hundred and fifty-years ago, I imagine that my home in the Puget Sound looked something similar to what greets my eyes now.  Mount Rainier towering over hills covered with ancient fir trees so thick that ten men linking arms could not surround.  Sockeye Salmon choking the clear running rivers that trickle westward from the glaciers of the Cascade Mountains.  Progress however, has changed much of that and while the Northwest is still a beautiful place, it is not the same.

When Seattle was born in the late 1800's, city planners chopped down hills  and dumped millions of tons of fill into Elliot bay, erasing the homes, sacred places of worship and livelihood of the Duwamish people who had been living there for thousands of years.  We fell most of the old trees and built a robust, but short-lived logging industry for several generations, but annihilated the fragile riparian zones of small streams vital to a breeding salmon.  We built hydroelectric dams that were instrumental in crushing Hilter's war machine and helping the Pacific Northwest build one of the strongest and most sustainable economies in the world, but decimated the salmon runs in Washington's great rivers.

While concentrated environmental and economic efforts have saved Pacific Salmon from extinction, they have largely gone from the Northwest and will not likely return in great numbers until the world as we know it ceases to exist.  In 2013 the US Department of Commerce declared the Washington Frasier River Sockeye a "disaster fishery" citing a 97% drop in revenue over the previous 5-year average.  Last week the Seattle PI reported a  sludge pond breach at the Imperial Mines Mount Polly gold and copper pit, which resulted in millions of liters of toxic phosphorus, copper, zinc, cobalt, selenium, arsenic, lead, mercury and cadmium flowing into the most prime of Frasier River Salmon spawning beds.  I fear this may be a final blow to a dying run and it saddens me beyond tears.

Living in the world that we do has caused me great depression at times, and I am guilty of often sinking into the pits of pessimism.  But the fact of the matter is that we cannot go backwards in the reality we have created; we may only go onward and do our best to create the world we wish our next to generation to inherit.
We are empowered to make decisions every day which have an impact on the health of our environment, and subsequently our own well-being.  I write these words not because I am paid to, but because something that became very dear to me this summer is under grave and immediate threat and I feel moved to action.  Northern Dynasty, a Canadian mining company has proposed the development of one of the largest open pit mines in the world to be located at the headwaters of the Kvichak and Nushagak Rivers; two of the eight mighty rivers that make up the Bristol Bay watershed.  The environmental threat of building a toxic waste dump in the center of the habitat which sustains one of the last great wild salmon runs on Earth cannot be overstated.

Fisherman fighting multi-national mining cooperations is a laughingly lopsided battle. Money is the king of capitalism and more people in the world desire metal dependent smart phones and laptop computers than care about one of the most important historical, economic and cultural icons of North America.  It is also likely true that the "economic potential" of a  pebble mine in Bristol Bay far outweighs that of the fishery and tourism that now sustains economy of this far corner of the world.  But I guarantee that when the last ounce of gold is stripped from the ground and the fish are all gone, these cooperations will pick up and move to someone else's back yard.  In my heart of hearts I hope that our government cares sufficiently about our environmental legacy to stop the development of this mine.

The irony that I write this piece on a laptop computer is not lost on me.  The human condition is wrought with contradiction and I am by no means exempt from being part of the problem.  However, I feel with passion that we must protect the few sacred natural  renewable resources we have left on this planet and do everything within our power to keep a few places in the world wild.  The threat posed by this project is far too great.  

I highly encourage you to follow the links I have provided below and educate yourself on the issue.  There are always two sides of a story, and never should we blindly accept information we receive from others.  If you are moved to do so, please take a moment to follow this link to the Commercial Fisherman of Bristol Bay website and send the prepared statement to the Environmental Protection Agency urging the passage of proposed protection of Bristol Bay under the Clean Water Act.  I also provided a link to the critically acclaimed film series In the Same Boat.  This documentary poetically illustrates the lives of Bristol Bay Fisherman and I hope you take a few minutes to watch. 

The fight is far from over and needs your support. 

Hyas Mahsie


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  1. Have you seen this news about the Elwha? Good news is out there!

  2. Ben-

    Yes I have seen this and it is great news. I need reminded from time to time that good things are happening out there and that environmental action make a difference.

    Thanks for the comment and I still owe you a beer mate.


  3. Thanks, Matt, for caring and putting this into clear and heartfelt language.

  4. Well put and thanks for acknowledging the constant battle (irony) that our modern lifestyle creates.