Avoiding the Path to Lonesome Larry

Chum Salmon, Admiralty Island, Alaska

Chum Salmon, Admiralty Island, Alaska

There was a time, as recently as the 1800s, when hundreds of thousands of salmon spawned in Redfish Lake, in the heart of the Sawtooth Mountains in central Idaho. The lake got its name for the brilliant red of the sockeye, so many that they colored the water of the lake itself.

And eye blink later, in 1992, that salmon run was down to just one fish, Lonesome Larry.

Human impacts – dams, mining, water contamination, over-fishing – had almost completely annihilated the salmon run on the eponymous Salmon River.

What’s worse, after 25 years of efforts to restore that salmon run, it’s still essentially demolished. This year, through late August, twenty sockeye returned to the Stanley Basin, fifteen hatchery fish and five naturally produced.

Twenty fish. After 25 years of trying.

One of the lessons of the destruction of the salmon runs in the Columbia River basin is that it is extremely difficult to recover salmon runs after they have been harmed. The stakeholders fight to protect their positions: the dams, the mining, the farming and ranching that create the agricultural pollution; those stakeholders protect their economic interests. Once created, they are extremely difficult to influence, let alone remove.

As an example, there’s no mystery about whether dams kill salmon and destroy spawning runs. Removing those dams would go a long ways to recovering the historic runs. But once an economy has grown up around cheap hydroelectricity, it’s nearly impossible to remove the dams.

Alaska has the planet’s greatest remaining wild salmon runs. Bristol Bay is unquestionably the world’s largest native salmon run. The only way to preserve it is to preserve, wild and pure, the waters which those fish need to spawn. Development in that drainage is a path to Lonesome Larry. We don’t have to make that mistake. We don’t have to take that path.

The proposed Pebble Mine is a step – quite a large step – on the path to Lonesome Larry. Alaska doesn’t have to take that step. Alaska doesn’t need a big mine in the headwaters of its prize salmon streams. Especially a mine that will generate vast amounts of waste that are toxic to salmon, or use cyanide – a chemical even more poisonous to fish than people – to extract the resource.

It’s worse than a dam. A sensible country tries to avoid making the same mistakes. Right?