Prof. Joel Markis testifies before the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in Sitka on Wednesday (6-5-19). President of the Alaska chapter of the American Fisheries Society, Markis said that his organization’s review of the draft Pebble EIS found “that it fails to meet the basic standard of scientific rigor, in a region that demands the highest level of scrutiny and thoroughness.” He argued that the document “dramatically underestimates” the risk to fish. On behalf of the 500 members of the AFS in Alaska, Markis applauded the Council’s decision to send a letter commenting on the Pebble project.

The state of Alaska believes the North Pacific Fishery Management Council is overstepping its bounds, by weighing in on the Pebble Mine Project in Bristol Bay.

A proposed comment letter drafted by the Council prompted a strong reaction from the state, during the Council’s June meeting in Sitka.

During its Sitka meeting Wednesday morning (6-5-19), the Council reviewed a letter it planned to send to the Army Corps of Engineers commenting on the draft environmental impact statement — or DEIS — of the Pebble Mine. The letter recommends that the potential impacts of large-scale mining be assessed not only for fish populations, but also “on both the value and reputation of North Pacific Fisheries.”

The state, however, contends that the Council is going too far. Deputy Commissioner of Fish & Game Rachel Baker entered the state’s formal opposition to the letter. Baker said that the state had no problem with the Council’s consulting with the Corps on Essential Fish Habitat, but “additional comments related to the draft EIS are outside the Council’s purview.”

Baker argued that the Council’s sending a letter on Pebble was a distraction from the “large number of fishery management issues on our agenda.”

Commercial fishing interests in the room used public testimony to defend the Council’s decision to comment.

Nic Mink, CEO of Sitka Salmon Shares, said he sold Bristol Bay sockeye to thousands of consumers in the US midwest. He believed the draft environmental impact statement prepared by the Pebble Project was inadequate. He appreciated that the Council was standing up for his suppliers and for his customers.

“For them, as it is for me, it’s critical for the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council to remain engaged in this DEIS process.”

Cheston Clark, a Bering Sea crab fisherman for three decades, said he would rather ride out a storm in the gulf than testify in public, but he supported the Council’s efforts to ensure that the Pebble Environmental Impact Statement covered even the most dire possibilities.

“I am concerned with the proposed Pebble Mine,” said Clark. “We don’t know what the impact would be in the Bering Sea and in Bristol Bay if — or more likely when — a catastrophic mine tailing dam failures.”

Alaska’s response to the Council’s draft letter on the Pebble EIS

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

The State of Alaska is concerned that the comments in this letter go beyond the scope of the Council’s roles and responsibilities. While it is appropriate for the Council to encourage the Army Corps of Engineers to work with NMFS on the Essential Fish Habitat consultation for the Pebble mine prospect, consistent with MSA section 305(b)(3)(a), it is the state’s position that additional comments related to the draft EIS are outside the Council’s purview. The state is concerned about the precedent these comments could establish for the Council to engage on future proposed resource development projects within the state of Alaska and the impacts this could have on other priority fishery management actions in front of the Council.

The Council has an established process to address non-fishing actions that may affect habitat and essential fish habitat for fishery resources under its authority: the Council relies on NMFS to engage in consultation with federal action agencies and NMFS reports back to the Council on the outcome of these consultations. I do not think it is appropriate for the Council to use its valuable time and resources to engage further in these types of issues because it lessens our ability to address the large number of fishery management issues on our agenda.

With that said, it is clear from the comments around the table that other Council members support the comment letter as written. Therefore, I will note for the record that the State of Alaska does not support the letter and recommends the Council maintains focus on priority management issues for fisheries in the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands and the Gulf of Alaska.

Rachel Baker, Deputy Commissioner ADF&G

Bristol Bay is 800 miles west of Sitka, but the sockeye run is of major importance statewide. A new Sitka processor — Northline Seafoods — has spent the last two years building a floating processing plant at Sitka’s industrial park, and sent it to Bristol Bay late last month.

Molly Blakey and her husband Ben are partners in the project with another Sitkan, Pat Glaab. She told the Council that the stakes could not be higher for her business, and for other startups in Alaska’s fisheries.

“I have read draft letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, and I hope that you send this draft,” Blakey said. “It is hard to put into words how our entire livelihood right now is wrapped up in this fishery. Our livelihood is processing Bristol Bay sockeye salmon.”

The Council took no immediate action on the letter. In an email to KCAW, Council director David Witherell said that staff may be tasked with additional edits to the letter near the end of this week-long Sitka meeting. But even the state concedes that the Council will not reverse course. “It’s clear from the comments around the table,” wrote deputy ADF&G commissioner Rachel Baker, “that other Council members support the comment letter as written.”

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council meets through June 10 in Sitka.