Customer letter prompts a response from Randy Hartnell, Vital Choice co-founder and former Alaskan fisherman 
by Randy Hartnell 

Last week, I received a message from customer Richard Fuller, who'd written to ask about the potential impact of the gold and copper mine (Pebble Mine) that a large Canadian consortium proposes to site at the headwaters of Bristol Bay.


(See our accompanying article, Salmon-Risking Gold Mine Goes to Alaskan Voters.”)


Bristol Bay hosts the largest Sockeye Salmon run in the world. I fished for Salmon commercially in Bristol Bay for many years, as did Vital Choice COO Dave Hamburg and our shipping manager (and my brother) Terry Hartnell.

Here is Mr. Fuller's thoughtful letter, followed by my response:


The New York Times ran a rather scary article on mining around Bristol BayAlaskaand heavy metal pollution risks of rivers Sockeye salmon depend on.
I'd be grateful if you'd comment on issues raised in the article. 
For example, does mining degrade the quality of the Sockeye available to Vital Choice?
You might wish to a post comment in your newsletter especially if Measure 4, which is an attempt to protect those rivers, is defeated.
Thanks for being there,

Richard Fuller

My response


Hi Richard,


Thanks for your message calling our attention to the article in The New York Times. We're very aware of this story, having written about it several times in our newsletter over the past three years. 

The principal risk associated with the mine is not contamination of mature fish harvested in the region. Wild Salmon are migratory and only caught after spending most of their lives in the open Bering Sea, far away from the proposed mine.


Typically, the commercial fishing effort targeting these fish intercepts them as they migrate back to their rivers of origin – but before they actually get there. One risk is that trace levels of copper (as low as 2 ppb) have been shown to interfere with the adult salmon's olfactory system, Deprived of their finely tuned sense of smell, it's possible they would be unable to find their way back to their natal river.


Bristol Bay salmon that do successfully navigate home cease feeding when they enter the river, and generally arrive at their spawning grounds within a few days. Consequently, their exposure to any contaminants present would be limited. Moreover, with the exception of a relative few taken by sports fishers, or for subsistence use by local natives, none would ever be consumed by humans.


The primary risk is to the spawning habitat and the juvenile fish that hatch and grow there before migrating out to sea. One ominous threat is that seepage or spillage of toxic waste water into the nursery streams could kill off millions of vulnerable baby Salmon, and impact all the other “downstream” species that depend upon them.


As one who witnessed the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill catastrophe, and watched that region's incredible herring runs (and my income derived from them) die off in its aftermath, I've learned that no number of promises from big industry can eliminate this worst-case-scenario risk.


Jeopardizing something as priceless as the largest sustainable Sockeye Salmon run in the world for the sake of a gold mine seems absolutely insane to us, but as you see that's what's potentially at stake here. 


Mining and drilling threats to this region are yet another one of the hidden costs of farmed Salmon, which depresses the market demand and value of “real Salmon” such as Bristol Bay Sockeye. Ground prices for Sockeye Salmon are near an all-time low, while virtually every cost associated with catching fish continues to rise.


Regional communities, who would otherwise make a good living harvesting fish from these prolific annual runs, are driven to seek less sustainable alternative sources of income. While most people in the region realize that authorizing the mine is akin to making “a deal with the devil,” many have an economic gun to their head that makes it very difficult to turn down the promise of high-paying mining jobs and lucrative tax revenues. 

Although we currently get almost all of our Sockeye from the much smaller Sockeye fisheries in Southeast Alaska, we're very concerned about the proposed Pebble Mine upstream from Bristol Bay.

Both I and my partner Dave Hamburg spent more than 20 years fishing that area, and remain intimately connected to it through many friends and family members who continue to earn a living fishing those waters.


I recently ran across this quotation from  Douglas Adams, which seems applicable:

“The major difference between a thing that might go wrong and a thing that cannot possibly go wrong is that when a thing that cannot possibly go wrong goes wrong it usually turns out to be impossible to get at or repair.”


We will continue to cover the issue in our newsletter and do what we can to help rally support for the effort against it.


Here are links to related articles in our archive:


August 1, 2005Proposed Mine Threatens Bristol Bay Region and Alaska's Wild Salmon 


August 8, 2006Opposition to Salmon-Risking Gold Mine Gains Momentum and a Powerful Ally


April 1, 2007Alaskan Salmon Win Key Round vs. Gold Mine


Thanks again for contacting me.


Best regards,

Randy Hartnell
, President

Vital Choice Wild Seafood & Organics