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Dillingham and the Pebble Mine

June 16, 2023

The small boat harbor in Dillingham at low tide.

Coming off Bristol Bay at dawn, it wasn’t obvious when we entered the Nushagak River. The mouth is 16 nautical miles wide and the land on either side is low and treeless.  But the water soon turns café au lait brown, and very shallow. At the Clark’s Point cannery, the channel narrows quickly to five miles across, and I had to watch the depth sounder carefully, feeling for the channel. The tide was in our favor. We reached Dillingham – and trees – in the mid-morning, about 50 winding miles from the mouth.

Bristol Bay is one of the largest salmon fisheries in the world, mostly sockeye. Dillingham is one of the two significant ports that serve the fleet, with Naknek to the south on the Kvichak River being the other. For sockeye, it’s a healthy fishery – one of the few in North America – with an annual return in 2022 of a record 60 million fish (we’d find out in a few months that 2023 would smash the record with 79 million fish, more than twice the 20-year average). The local fishermen depend on these fish. The indigenous people depend on these fish. Anyone who likes seafood depends on these fish. The orcas, the sea lions, the seals, the bears, and even the trees in the forest depend on these fish. The Bristol Bay fishery is a rare and wonderful bright spot in the salmon world.

This fishery had been under attack. A mine called the Pebble Mine – copper, molybdenum, gold, silver, rhenium, and palladium – had been planned for the watershed that feeds both the Nushagak and Kvichak rivers. According to many experts (including one mining engineer I shared a lot of wine with at a party last year), the mine would have created a few new jobs for a few decades, but the runoff would have decimated the fishery and everyone and everything that depends on it.

The only clear winner would have been the shareholders of a mining corporation in Vancouver, British Columbia, called Northern Dynasty. It’s traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Opposition to the mine came from all quarters: Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay, Trout Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy, the Bristol Bay Native Corp, the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp, the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust, and other organizations. In January 2023, the EPA listened and shut down the mine.

Some mines, of course, are worth the environmental cost. But not this one. As former Republican Senator Ted Stevens said, “It is the wrong mine in the wrong place.”

I pulled the Endeavour abeam of town and tried to figure out where to anchor. There is a marina, but it is scaled for the local 32-foot-long gillnetters (their size limited by statute), and the marina goes pretty much dry at every low tide. There are two large quays (pronounced “keys”), metal-sided concrete structures built parallel to the shore to tie boats to; the base of one of them goes dry at low tide, and the other is reserved for cannery traffic.

I anchored out in the river with a couple of salmon tenders (the fish hadn’t arrived yet, so they were quiet), but the tide was now in full ebb and running more than five knots. We dragged.  I let out more scope. We still dragged. I moved further out, re-anchored, and let out a ridiculous 220 feet of chain in 25 feet of water, and this time we held. Looking over the side, though, the water was rushing by like we were still underway. Falling in would be death; you would be swept away in a moment and die of hyperthermia long before the current took you anywhere near shore.

Two days later we were tied up to the quay that goes dry, but it was high tide. We were using the boom on our top deck to bring the BBC crew’s camera gear on board: 35 cases and bags weighing 2,500 pounds in total, flown in on a chartered flight. The three Brits – Poppy the producer-director, Hellen, a photographer, and George, an assistant producer, were helping us load. They were young – about the same age as my older son – but clearly professionals, and fun.  Ernie, the older chief photographer, an American, had already taken my new Zodiac off somewhere to drill holes in the bow and mount a gimble for a half-million-dollar camera.

At dawn, we’d be off for a month to film walruses. 

-- Bill Urschel

Half the BBC crew: Ernie Kovacs, left, and Poppy Riddle, right (and Bella) in the Endeavour salon.

The Bristol Bay watershed near the proposed Pebble Mine.


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