Interview by Trout Unlimited Alaska's Communications Director and Award Winning,
Writer,  Paula Dobbyn

Introduction By Scott Hed, Director, Sportsman's Alliance for Alaska

Many sport anglers may have heard about the ongoing debate over a very controversial plan to allow massive mining development in the Bristol Bay region of Southwest Alaska.  Bristol Bay plays host to the largest runs of wild salmon on the planet, including over 40 million sockeye salmon annually.  This incredible fishery supports a $300 million commercial fishery as well as a sport fishery valued at over $60 million per year.  Rivers like the Kvichak, Naknek, Nushagak, Talarik Creek, and many more fill the dreams of anglers worldwide who travel to this region to pursue some of the largest wild rainbow trout in the world, Dolly Varden, arctic char, arctic grayling, and of course, the five species of Pacific salmon. 

In real estate, they say location is everything.  Well, in this battle, it's also all about location...the proposed Pebble Mine, a project backed by foreign mining interests, would be sited at the headwaters of two of the most productive river systems in Bristol Bay - the Kvichak and the Nushagak.  In this seismically active area, home to earthquakes and volcanoes, the Pebble Partnership proposes to build what would be the largest open-pit mine in North America (and one of the world's largest).  The project would include a massive open pit, an adjacent underground mine, and toxic tailings lakes for the mining waste to be stored FOREVER behind a series of earthen dams (including the largest dam in world).

Visit the Sportsman's Alliance for Alaska web site to learn more about the Bristol Bay area and the fight being waged for its future.  You'll see that sporting conservation groups like Trout Unlimited, the Federation of Fly Fishers, and Dallas Safari Club have all come out saying this is the wrong idea in the wrong place.  Check out the SAA's Latest News page and view the ad featuring over 150 companies in the sport fishing gear industry all joining together to say "Protect Bristol Bay."

In the meantime, we thought you'd enjoy this interview with an Alaska-based fisheries scientist who is doing a lot of field research to document important fish habitat in the Bristol Bay region, all in an effort to keep the region safe from the threats of massive mining development.


Fisheries scientist, Dr. Carol Ann Woody, PhD, unveiled some groundbreaking research this year that greatly expands what's known about fish populations in the Nushagak and Kvichak River Drainages. These important rivers and their tributaries feed Bristol Bay, home of the world's largest wild sockeye salmon run and an environmentally sensitive area that's under threat from large-scale, industrial mining.

Woody and a small group of scientists from the State of Alaska, non-governmental organizations and tribes surveyed for salmon, rainbow trout and subsistence fish in a variety of streams near the Pebble deposit, where a consortium of mining companies hopes to build North America's largest open-pit copper and gold mine. The consortium, known as the Pebble Limited Partnership, consists of the Northern Dynasty Partnership and Anglo American US (Pebble) LLC, which is wholly owned by Anglo American, a multinational mining company. For several years, the proposed developers have conducted an array of scientific, economic and cultural studies as part of their pre-feasibility planning before applying for permits. Despite several years of exploration and study at the Pebble deposit, the developers had not nominated any new streams to the Catalog since 2004 and results of their fisheries studies have not been released since 2005.

Woody's goal was to truth check the mining companies' fisheries studies and to document salmon in reaches of stream that government scientists had yet to survey. Woody had a hunch that there were more fish in the region than the Pebble Limited Partnership had found.

What Woody's crew found was some 28 new miles of salmon-producing habitat that Woody immediately nominated for addition to Alaska's Anadromous Waters Catalogue. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game reviewed the nominations and accepted them for inclusion in the Anadromous Waters Catalogue. The Catalogue provides most basic legal protection afforded in Alaska to a stream or lake containing salmon. Once included in the Anadromous Waters Catalogue, a body of water cannot be disturbed without the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's prior notice and permission. 

Small streams are important because they often provide essential rearing habitat.  Large fish can't get into little streams so fry are able to move around and feed without the risk of predation.  Scientific research has shown a linear relationship between coho salmon production and stream length -- as many as 1,952 coho salmon may be produced per kilometer of stream.  As such, over 91,000 coho smolt could be produced from the 47 kilometers, or 28 miles, of salmon stream documented in Woody's study. That's a lot of fish.

Trout Unlimited Alaska's Communications Director, Paula Dobbyn, spoke with Woody about her report and the scientific work she and others will be conducting this summer. What follows are interview excerpts:

Q: What prompted you to do the study?

A: I knew that many streams that are potentially capable of producing salmon were being ignored by the Pebble Partnership.  Small streams provide ideal rearing habitat for cohos, kings, dolly varden char, rainbow trout and other species.  In a Fisheries Technical Working Group meeting I asked Dr. Jim Buell, the Pebble Partnerhips's lead fish biologist, if they planned to survey any of the headwater tributaries.  He said no.  I then asked the Department of Fish and Game if they were planning to do such work and they indicated they did not have funding or direction to do it.  Under Alaska's Constitution, it is ADF&G's job to conduct anadromous fish surveys and maintain the database but the higher echelons have to support such work.  Since no one was going to do it I pursued it.

Q: Who funded your research project?

A: I had been trying to get money for years to highlight the fact that many small and as yet unsurveyed streams in the mineral claims area provide viable rearing habitat for salmon and other subsistence species.  Last spring, The Nature Conservancy stepped in and provided financial backing for the helicopter, electrofisher, all logistics and my time.  To accomplish the work and have it accepted in the science world, I needed reputable scientists to assist.  I recruited two Fish and Game employees, who volunteered, the Bristol Bay Native Association contributed Daniel Chythlook and Cook Inlet Keeper provided their water quality expert, Sue Mauger.  Dan Rinella of the University of Alaska's Environment and Natural Resources Institute also assisted on contract to TNC.  Rainbow King Lodge in Iliamna donated room and board and the University of Washington provided a vehicle. I pieced most of it together on a shoestring budget and we pulled it off.  I know science will play a huge role in reviewing the adequacy of Pebble's environmental baseline for permitting.  I felt I had to underscore what was being ignored.  It's odd how after so many years and millions of dollars invested in environmental studies that salmon fry rearing on top of Pebble West were overlooked. 

Q: How did you carry out the stream surveys?

A:  I selected 47 headwater tributaries in and around the Pebble prospect.  Marcus Geist of the Nature Conservancy used his GIS skills to peg GPS coordinates of each site I selected.  We flew out and each day two teams of three people would hopscotch from one selected stream to the next to conduct surveys.  At each site we measured basic water quality parameters, like pH, which tells you how acid or alkaline a stream is, and we characterized the habitat.  Then we went electrofishing walking upstream slowly and sampling all habitat types.  Stunned fish were put in a bucket of water until the end of the survey when they were measured and released.   

Q: What's an electrofisher?

A: An electrofisher is a tool to fish using electricity.  We used a battery powered backpack electrofisher.  You set the amount of current based on the stream conductivity to stun, not harm, fish.  You have an anode and a cathode in the stream and a person with a net following.  You run current through the water from your anode to cathode and when fish encounter a high enough potential or current they swim toward it and get temporarily stunned.  You have to net them quickly as they recover as soon as you stop the current. 

Q: How do you decide which streams to survey?

A:  I selected streams based on gradient and whether they were in the Anadromous Waters Catalogue or not.  I want to go as high in the watershed as I can to find salmon because we want to define the upper limit of their distribution.

Q: What kind of reaction did your findings provoke?

A: We surprised the  Pebble Partnership   We showed  that they had overlooked lots of salmon habitat which brings into question the thoroughness of their baseline studies The fact that they've been out sampling about 5 years and  spent millions of dollars and overlooked so much salmon habitat raises lots of questions.  

Q: To what extent has the Pebble Partnership released the results of the research it has sponsored?

A: In 2005 Pebble released certain draft technical reports of what they were finding. Dave Chambers (a PhD geophysicist and head of the Center for Science in Public Participation, based in Bozeman, Montana) and Bob Moran (a PhD hydrogeochemist)  reviewed them and wrote up  critiques and raised valid questions about the data, results, techniques etc.  Since then, Pebble has stated they won't release any information for fear their critics will get it.  Now they claim they are releasing all their data but they are not. What they are doing is releasing bits and pieces of information so anyone who is a scientist or critic can never piece together the whole story. After Chambers critiqued the 2005 data release the Pebble folks said, "We're not going to release more as people are going to critique it." But that's the whole point of science: you need to pass the criticism of your peers. That's the way I approach it. When I release a study I say, "Here's my stuff boys. Go ahead and rip it apart."

Q: Why are you focused the Pebble mine project?

A: I focus on Pebble because the size and type of the mine poses a real threat to Bristol Bay and its fish. And I don't trust the Pebble Partnership. I don't think they've been honest or transparent with the public or regulators. Early on when I was still working for the federal government on this project, the Pebble people gave me reason not to trust them. They went to villages where I had worked for years and told people they were going to use organic soap to wash the gold and other metal out of the pulverized rock. They made it seem as if the processing chemicals used in mining were innocuous, like something you would wash your clothes with. They were talking to subsistence people whose lives revolve around these fish and they had the gall to tell them they would use organic soap as if it were somehow safe for fish. Cyanide is organic and highly toxic.  So are many of the processing chemicals used in mining.  They deliberately tried to mislead people and still are.

Q: Are you finished with your fish survey or are you doing more research this field season?

A: We're doing more. Starting on August 11 we begin fish and habitat surveys and plan to go until about September 5. We are collaborating with representatives from ADF&G, USFWS, Cook Inlet Keeper, Trout Unlimited, Bristol Bay Native Association, Nondalton Tribal Council, National Parks and Conservation Association and The Wild Salmon Center.  We've even invited the Pebble Partnership to come.  We want to be open and transparent and so we invited them along.

Q: Why did you invite the Pebble Partnership to participate?

A: We want to be open and transparent, and we want Pebble to be open and transparent.   They want to know what we're doing, where we're doing it and how we're doing it.  It's a way of keeping them honest. And we want them to release all of their data. It's a chess game. We can never duplicate what Pebble has done as far as research. They've spent millions and millions and we just don't have that kind of money. What we can do is trust and verify their data and get them to be transparent.  They will only have to deal with us later if they put us off now since we're not going away.  We have some very smart people scrutinizing their data releases as they occur.  Really the most important thing is to get them to release their data because if we see their data, we can determine if their results are scientifically valid, or not. 

Q: Are there other studies going on this summer besides yours and the work that the Pebble Partnership is doing?

A: Kendra Zamzo, PhD, is an environmental geochemist with the Center for Science in Public Participation, is doing a water quality study. She's gone to the same sites Pebble sampled and is also doing her own sampling. We're calling this a trust and verify study: we trust Pebble and the results they've given us but we want to check for ourselves, just in case. We're also getting data from sites outside where Pebble has sampled, such as the Chulitna watershed which drains to Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. We suspect this area is all interconnected by groundwater as soils are highly conductive or porous. Then we'll actually have a full suite of water quality data which we have not been able to get from Pebble. Kendra will sample twice. Once when there's run-off when you get the highest levels of metals and other constituents which at high levels could be considered contaminants or toxics. She'll also go this summer at low-flow as you'll have different levels then.

Q: Any other studies?

A: Dan Bogan with the University of Alaska's Environment and Natural Resources Institute will be sampling in June. He'll be looking at the benthic community - the diatoms, the micro-invertebrates, the small critters fish love in the bottom of streams and creeks -- which is most sensitive to changes in water chemistry. He'll be basically doing a "what's out there" study. At certain sites we'll have a snapshot of the whole living community in that creek and that's a good thing to use as an index of health in the future. We can go in and look at it this year and say, okay, that's what the community looks like now. And same thing next year, and maybe next year we see that it's different. That may be an indicator that something is wrong with the water quality. Fish surveys are important. But what Dan is doing is really crucial. You see, fish are important but if there's a problem with the mine, really it's the water quality that will go first and then the diatoms and then the invertebrates. The fish can move around. They're fairly hardy. But when it gets so bad that they're affected then you know there's a huge problem. The benthic creatures are those that will tell you first if there's a problem.

Q: It sounds like non-governmental organizations are playing a big role in trying to keep Pebble honest. What about government regulators?

A: The government hasn't played a big role. They can't even get the Pebble Partnership to provide technical summaries. No reports are required until they apply for permits and trigger the federal National Environmental Policy Act.  The Department of Natural Resources, which handles mine permits, hasn't taken water quality samples to check on Pebble or asked to split samples with Pebble.  The most the state does is go out and visit exploration drill sites take pictures and write down what their observations are but they don't measure anything. They're not measuring the water quality to compare against what Pebble collects and presents.  The state trusts the mining company to conduct the most rigorous, statistically defensible studies to characterize baseline conditions and to monitor environmental change.  They say the water looks good. But you know, a lot of things that can hurt fish are invisible in water. You can't see dissolved copper, but it can kill fish. I think the regulatory system is biased in favor of the mining industry. The current regulations and laws are insufficient to protect an area with sensitive aquatic resources from the effects of a massive sulfide mine in highly porous soils smack dab on top of salmon habitat.

Q: Do you think that science could end up stopping the Pebble mine from being developed?

A: Frankly science usually does not play a huge role in the final decision of whether these projects go or don't' go. We can highlight how high-risk this project is to the salmon and clean water. That's what we're trying to do - to educate people to the fact that this is a high-risk project and here's why, a, b, c. d, e, f g.  But ultimately it falls into the politicians' hands, regulators' hands, and lawyers' hands.  The science plays a critical role in providing real defensible facts in the final debates and decision.    That's where the public has to get involved. My concern is that a lot of the work we're doing is preaching to the choir instead of educating the pale greens.

Q: Who are the pale greens?

A:   People who are pretty conservative, generally pro-development, Republicans  who like to hunt and fish and who, if they could really understand  the facts  would think, maybe this isn't such a good idea. I think if we could get them to understand the science we could change their minds. They're not going to change by seeing a bumper sticker. They don't like that kind of greenie reactionary stuff. But some of them are smart enough if they have defensible information in their hands. They know that salmon have been almost wiped out in the lower 48. They know there's really no fishing there and this is the last place where salmon are healthy and abundant. 

Dr. Carol Ann Woody has designed, supervised and published results of original research focused on salmonid behavior, genetics, life history, evolution, and management in the Kvichak and Tustumena watersheds of Alaska since 1991.  Dr. Woody has over 25 years of experience including: 13 years as a fisheries research scientist with the US Geological Survey at the Alaska Science Center; four years with the Fisheries Research Institute at the University of Washington; two years at the National Fishery Research Laboratory in La Crosse, Wisconsin; four years as a fish and wildlife biologist for the Forest Service on the Tongass; two years as a fisheries and wildlife consultant; and 2 years as an aquaculturist in South America.

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