What Can Bristol Bay Teach Us About People Power?

I remember walking the show floor of my first International Fly Tackle Dealer Show back in Denver in 2010. I was relatively new to the fishing tackle industry then and I was drinking everything in and getting a feel for the lie of the land by talking to as many folks as I could manage over a three-day trade show. One thing I couldn’t help but notice was a series of little white stickers on just about any surface that you could put a sticker on – notebooks, fly boxes, windows, bags – they were everywhere, and all carrying the very simple message: No Pebble Mine. Little did I realise that the fight these stickers were referring to would still be raging on 10 years later, and even though it feels like the latest battle has been won, there’s still a sense that the war is far from over.

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last decade, the Pebble Mine stickers and the Save Bristol Bay campaign they refer to are all about protecting the prolific and unprecedented wild salmon runs of the Bristol Bay area in southwest Alaska, and the jobs and livelihoods attached to that fishery. It’s a twofold battle – both environmental and economic – against plans to build a huge mine.

The Pebble deposit is a colossal natural storehouse of gold, copper and molybdenum, largely located in the headwaters of Alaska’s Kvichak and Nushagak Rivers. Mining companies have been clamouring to get a piece of the action there since as far back as the 1980s. The plans that triggered the Save Bristol Bay movement were originally backed by London, England-based Anglo American, alongside Canadian mining company Northern Dynasty (now the main mining company attempting to get a permit here alongside the Pebble Limited Partnership). They wanted to build a mine that could destroy over 3,00 acres of wetlands and more than 21 miles of salmon streams along with building hugely destructive infrastructure such as: an 83-mile long road with more than 8 bridges, huge storage facilities, treatment ponds and dams, a 230-megawatt powerplant, and a 188-mile long natural gas pipeline, to name but a few. You don’t have to be a hardened environmentalist to realise a project of this scale, which would involve drilling and large-scale construction was going to be bad news for the environment. 

Bristol Bay is one of the world’s most important salmon fisheries. Photo: Trout Unlimited

Fighting Talk

So began the Save Bristol Bay movement, and after what seems like a lifetime of proposals, arguments, campaigning and legal wrangling, the latest news points towards victory against the proposed mine. In August 2020 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said that it found ‘the proposed Pebble mine would likely cause significant degradation and significant adverse effects to the waters and fisheries of Bristol Bay and cannot receive a permit under the Clean Water Act, as proposed’. And that decision became even more vindicated just a few weeks later when the ‘Pebble Tapes’ – a series of 12 videos showing Pebble Limited Partnership executives discussing that their true intentions for the mine in Bristol Bay were significantly larger than proposed – were revealed by the Environmental Investigation Agency.

Lessons To Be Learned

So, how did a movement that started with largely just anglers and local Alaskan communities managed to hold strong against rich and powerful corporations? What can we learn from this David versus Goliath story? Quite a few things…

The importance of a clear message – The message couldn’t be more simple: Save Bristol Bay. Trout Unlimited (and the American Fly Fishing Trade Associaton) did a great job of keeping the taglines supporting the movement clear and concise, as well as explaining the details in a way everyone could understand for those wanting to dive deeper. Even if you had no idea what it was about, the messaging piqued interest, so you had to learn more about what Bristol Bay needed saving from or what the heck Pebble Mine was. 

Everyone is a potential supporter – Save Bristol Bay gained international acclaim. Of course, the support and backing of local people and organisations in Alaska was crucial to it, but by scaling things up and gaining support from environmentalists, fishing companies and anglers all around the world, it made a noise that couldn’t be ignored. I reckon there aren’t many anglers (particularly fly fishermen) who haven’t at least heard of Bristol Bay and Pebble Mine – that’s powerful reach.

Stickers supporting the Save Bristol Bay campaign have become a mark of awareness among anglers. Photo: Trout Unlimited

Creating a brand can help – It sounds bizarre, but those No Pebble Mine stickers I mentioned earlier became a symbol, and even in some ways a brand that anglers were proud to show off, just as much as any fishing tackle company name. They said something about you as a human being and that you were on the same page as anyone else who supported this cause. When folks are proud to be associated with your cause your word-of-mouth support networks go into overdrive.

There’s strength in numbers – Trout Unlimited has worked closely with communities, anglers, hunters, Tribes, businesses and local and international partners over the course of the last 15 years or so it has been fighting this battle. The more varied the group of supporters, the more noticed your campaign gets by people in all walks of life. Save Bristol Bay got to the point where even non-anglers or people with no real knowledge of or connection to Alaska fervently supported their cause. The cause even got public support from Donald Trump, Jr. this year.

Encourage action, not just awareness – Sure, the more people who know about your cause the better, but how do you turn that support into something more meaningful? You get supporters to take action. A key component of Save Bristol Bay has always been getting supporters to engage with politicians on a local, national and even international level. Writing to Presidents, Congressmen and women, Governors and Mayors has been a big part of Save Bristol Bay, which not only helped the cause, but helped further involve supporters as they felt like they could actually make a difference. The organisation also has a fund to support its activities that anyone can donate to. The stickers are also a way to donate, as you can pledge whatever amount you want when you buy one. 

Never rest on your laurels – One characteristic the Save Bristol Bay campaign has always had is knowing the war is never over. Even now, after the Clean Water Permit has pretty much been refused to the mining companies, everyone is still on their guard – they’ve been bitten before. A recent article by fly fishing travel company Yellow Dog highlights this perfectly, stating “We have gotten close to stopping Pebble before, only to see this project rise from the grave like a monster in a bad horror movie.  It is absolutely critical to remain informed, vigilant, and engaged.”

Trust in people – In modern times, it’s easy to forget that deep down the majority of human beings are decent, kind and reasonable. Sometimes, even corporate greed cannot stand in the way of humans protecting what they know should be protected. Save Bristol Bay never gave up the fight because it believed in the good characteristics of people. All it takes is a little less noise and a little more understanding.