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OPINION: Film provides crucial perspective in fight for salmon

March 27th, 2015 | Thomas Tilden Print this article   Email this article  

Over the past few weeks, the documentary film "The Breach" has toured Alaska — beginning in Anchorage, then onto Southeast, and ending last week in the Bristol Bay villages of Dillingham, Naknek, Igiugig, and Port Heiden. For those of us that live and fish in Bristol Bay, the film not only presented a thoughtful and touching depiction of our home but also the critical importance of salmon to our cultural way of life and spiritual well-being and our sustainable economy. The film also articulated the stakes in our continued fight against the threat of the Pebble mine.

"The Breach" follows filmmaker Mark Titus, former a sport-fishing guide in Southeast Alaska, as he travels the Pacific Coast from Oregon to Bristol Bay to discover more about the state of the once-great pacific salmon runs. At the beginning of the film, Titus's findings are disheartening — the salmon are simply gone. But, he continues to journey north where he finds, incredibly, the salmon still thrive here in Alaska. Upon reaching the Last Frontier Titus reflects that Alaska is "the last place we still have a chance to get it right."

Bristol Bay is the world's last great wild sockeye salmon fishery because the habitat here is virtually the same as it was thousands of years ago. It is a sad irony therefore, that Bristol Bay's salmon are now being threatened in a similar manner as their Lower-48 cousins.

That threat of course is the proposed Pebble Mine. By now many of you know the details: multiple tailings dams, the largest open pit in North America, pipelines, roads, and power plants — all on top of the wetlands that are the cradle for Bristol Bay's salmon.

Watching "The Breach" reminded me that Bristol Bay is the salmon's last stand. There are no more watersheds to turn to if Bristol Bay sees the same fate as the Columbia or Frasier river watersheds.

This is why our communities have and will continue to fight the Pebble mine. Our progress is indisputable: the Environmental Protection Agency stood with the region's Tribes and answered their call for action, the people of Alaska have voiced time and again their opposition to metallic-sulfide mining in this watershed—most recently through a statewide ballot measure to place more restrictions on mining in Bristol Bay. But, even though we have made great strides, we still do not have certainty that our salmon are safe from mines like Pebble.

Not to be outdone, however, Pebble has unleashed a three-prong attack against our efforts. In the courts, Pebble filed lawsuit after lawsuit in an effort to delay any further EPA review of the project. Next, Pebble turned to outside politicians in Congress to push legislation to rewrite the Clean Water Act to be more beneficial to their case. Finally, Pebble hired an all-star media team to spread their message to any media outlet willing to listen.

Despite Pebble's effort, however, the word is out: At every screening of "The Breach," Alaskans filled the room and applauded Titus's celebration of salmon and the Native cultures, eco-systems, and livelihoods they sustain. You heard that right: The film sold out in every stop of its tour.

While we have had setbacks along the fight against mines like Pebble, we have heard time and again, the voices of thousands of Alaskans and millions of Americans who stand with Bristol Bay, our communities, and our way of life. These voices are clear: The world's last great salmon fishery is no place for a metallic sulfide mine like Pebble.

I would like to thank Titus for this film. It tells a real story — the story of salmon, the habitat they need, and the people who have the power to protect that habitat. It tells our story as indigenous people of Bristol Bay, as Alaskans, and as salmon stewards of the globe. It is a story that needed to be told. And, more importantly, it is a story we intend to write a positive ending for.

Thomas Tilden is an Executive Officer at United Tribes of Bristol Bay, Curyung Tribal Council's First Chief, a lifelong Bristol Bay resident and subsistence/commercial fishermen. UTBB is a tribal consortium working to protect traditional ways of life and the Bristol Bay watershed from large-scale metallic sulfide mining.


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