The Resource War Over Pebble Mine in Alaska's Bristol Bay
The battle lines are being drawn for what is becoming one of America’s largest natural resources fights in decades, pitting the mining industry against defenders of a way of life and an economy that are inextricably linked to one of the U.S.’s most intact and productive ecosystems.
The Bristol Bay region in southwest Alaska, often referred to as “America’s fish basket,” is home to the most valuable salmon fishing ground in the U.S. This pristine area supports the production of more than half of the world’s sockeye salmon, one of the most popular and prized types of salmon. Additionally, the region supports substantial catches of four other salmon species and herring. In total, the salmon fisheries of Bristol Bay support the equivalent of nearly 10,000 full-time jobs and create $1.5 billion in annual economic output. It is a prime example of a conservation economy, defined as a sustainable economy that directly depends on a healthy ecosystem.
But a large mineral deposit is located at the headwaters of two of the major rivers that flow into Bristol Bay, and international mining companies are eager to extract the hundreds of billions of dollars in gold, copper and molybdenum found there. Extraction of these precious metals will require open-pit mining—digging up and separating the ore with toxic chemicals—on a massive scale with very few precedents.
Because of this, mining in the Bristol Bay region has become extremely controversial, drawing the attention of Alaska Natives, fishermen and other stakeholders. Specifically, opponents have serious concerns with one particular mine—the Pebble Project—which happens to be the furthest along in the process. A project of the Pebble Limited Partnership, which teams two multinational mining companies, Anglo American and Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., the Pebble Project would be one of the world’s largest open-pit mines.
While the partnership has yet to release a plan of operations for the mine or apply for federal permits, its basic characteristics have been specifically detailed in preliminary assessments filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Additionally, an economic study commissioned by the Pebble Limited Partnership and released in May provided more details about the proposed mine. Because the deposit’s ore is so diffuse, the mine would require not only an open pit thousands of feet deep and two miles to three miles wide, but also tailings reservoirs to hold toxic mine waste that could cover more than 7,600 acres, or 12 square miles, and would remain in perpetuity.
Today the area where the Pebble Project would be built is all but free of development and is unlike almost any place in the lower 48 states. This remote wild region is off the electrical grid, and to heat and power their villages, the Alaska Native communities must either ship in fuel or harness renewable resources. Construction of the mine will therefore also require the building of significant amounts of supporting infrastructure, including roads, power plants, pipelines and a port, and the resulting development would have destructive environmental impacts for hundreds of square miles. As the PBS television news show FRONTLINE reported, “No mine of this size—with huge dams for mine waste that would stand taller than the Washington Monument—has ever been developed in such an ecologically sensitive region.”
The Bristol Bay area’s undeveloped ecosystem and the salmon fishery that it supports are also critically important to the region’s Alaska Natives, particularly the Dena’ina and the Yup’ik people. Anthropologist Dr. Alan Boraas, who worked on a watershed assessment conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) noted that the area supports the last remaining indigenous culture that relies completely on wild salmon runs. Of the approximately 30 cultures across the world that once relied on salmon, Boraas noted:
There are no cultures of the other almost 30 that can today rely on wild salmon because the salmon runs have been destroyed. Only [in] one place—only one place—can cultures carry on the traditions of their ancestors, making the transition from prehistory to now. The technology changes, but the attitudes, many of the beliefs, and the impact on the culture are still there. And that’s the Dena’ina and the Yup’ik of this area.
While the Pebble Project would be located on lands owned by the state of Alaska, open-pit mining requires the discharge of huge amounts of polluted water, extensive dredging and the filling of waterways with mine waste. Consequently, the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must first issue permits for these activities under the Clean Water Act. Because of the severity of potential impacts on Bristol Bay’s fisheries and tribal communities, the EPA has undertaken a comprehensive, scientific “watershed assessment” of the Bristol Bay region to assess these risks and inform its future decision making.
Mining in the Bristol Bay region, and particularly the proposed Pebble Project, presents an unusually stark choice between two different paths of natural resources development: the extraction of finite hard-rock minerals and a sustainable economy based on a valuable renewable resource—salmon. Thousands of jobs in fishing and tourism, as well as the traditional way of life for the region’s native communities, hang in the balance.
The Bristol Bay Environment
The key to the Bristol Bay region’s economy, as well as its $1.5 billion national economic contribution, is its undeveloped, unspoiled character. As PBS’s FRONTLINE puts it:
[I]n the headwaters of Bristol Bay, conditions are nearly perfect. Human activity that ruins salmon habitat, such as dam building, logging, farming or road construction, is virtually non-existent.
The Bristol Bay region encompasses nine major rivers, each with an array of tributaries, as well as Lake Iliamna, the largest lake in Alaska and seventh-largest body of fresh water in the U.S. FRONTLINE describes the landscape as “a vast spongy swamp crisscrossed with streams and punctuated by small lakes. Abundant ground and surface water are constantly mingling through a gravel-based soil that is highly permeable.” Consequently, discharges of water pollution would likely spread widely and be very difficult to clean up and remediate.
Moreover, because this landscape is unspoiled by dams, pollution or overfishing, the fish stocks supported by the Bristol Bay ecosystem are among the most bountiful on the planet, providing one of the last great examples of the once-innumerable runs of salmon on both American coasts. Every summer, runs of five different species of salmon, including pink, chum, chinook (also known as king), coho and sockeye, begin the return journey from the ocean waters of Bristol Bay back up through a network of rivers to spawn and die in the freshwater streams where they hatched.
Perhaps the best way to understand the unique character of the Bristol Bay region is to compare it to places where wild salmon once were abundant. One such region is that of the Columbia and Snake rivers of the Pacific Northwest, where wild salmon once could be found in massive numbers. Anecdotal evidence suggests that during the 1800s, about 1.5 million salmon and steelhead trout returned annually to spawn in the Snake River.
Today, however, because of industrial development, dams and other infrastructure, many of the runs are now only a shadow of their former grandeur. Consider this: More than 12 different runs of salmon on the Columbia and Snake rivers are now federally listed as threatened or endangered, and taxpayers are paying millions of dollars to recover them. As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) writes:
Human activities have substantially reduced the amount of suitable spawning habitat in the Snake River … Even prior to hydroelectric development, many small tributary habitats were lost or severely damaged by construction and operation of irrigation dams and diversions; inundation of spawning areas by impoundments; and siltation and pollution from sewage, farming, logging and mining.
Because of these impacts, salmon runs in the Snake River declined to around 125,000 fish in the 1950s and then dwindled to only a few hundred in the 1990s, showing how sensitive salmon populations can be to industrial activity.
Development of the Pebble Project will require a similar array of supporting infrastructure, including construction of new dams and impoundments, roads and pipelines that will be a significant source of waterborne sediment. This new infrastructure will cross dozens of streams, each of which could easily block fish passage and eliminate upstream spawning habitat.
The massive decline in salmon populations in the Snake River shows just how easy it is to lose world-class stocks of fish. Without great caution being exercised, Bristol Bay salmon face a similar peril.
Commercial fishing is vital to the American economy, and Alaska is the nation’s crown jewel for seafood production. In 2011 Alaska fishermen hauled in about 35 percent of America’s catch by value, more than three times as much as Massachusetts, the state in second place. Alaska fishing also provides more than half of our total landings by weight, more than four times as much as Louisiana, the runner up. Even by Alaska’s standards, Bristol Bay’s salmon fishery is a huge economic driver: one study from the University of Alaska found that in 2010 it created the equivalent of nearly 10,000 full-time jobs across the U.S. and $1.5 billion in total economic output.
The thriving Bristol Bay ecosystem underpins all of these jobs because it supports an astounding number of wild fish. Since the early 1990s annual upriver runs of sockeye salmon from Bristol Bay have averaged more than 37 million fish, the biggest and most valuable run of sockeyes anywhere in the world. Since 1991 Bristol Bay’s commercial sockeye fishermen have landed an average 25.6 million fish annually—about 51 percent of the global sockeye catch. (British Columbia’s Fraser River region comes in a distant second place, contributing about 11 percent.) And exports of the salmon return $250 million to the U.S. economy, comprising nearly six percent of all U.S. exports of seafood in 2010.
Just two of the Bristol Bay watershed’s major rivers—the Nushagak and the Kvichak—together contribute half of Bristol Bay sockeye landings, equivalent to a quarter of the world total. The proposed Pebble Project would be located at the headwaters of these rivers.
This geographic predicament highlights the importance of careful study and planning by policymakers to protect the dozens of miles of downstream salmon habitat that serve as the beating heart of this sustainable fishery.
Sport Fishing and Recreation
The Bristol Bay region also attracts recreational anglers from around Alaska and beyond, who come for both the salmon runs and world-class rainbow trout. In the last major study on the sector, researchers from the U.S. Forest Service reported that sport fishing is the region’s most important economic activity outside the commercial salmon harvest, with more than $61 million spent in Alaska in 2005 on Bristol Bay fishing trips. Wildlife viewing and other types of tourism are also important economic drivers, supporting thousands of visits to Bristol Bay annually. The region’s unaltered ecosystem and dramatic landscapes harbor thriving populations of moose, caribou, brown bear, grey wolves, bald eagles and numerous other species once common elsewhere in the U.S., many of which rely heavily on salmon as a food source.
This extraordinary natural heritage has already inspired the establishment of two of Alaska’s major national parks nearby—the Lake Clark National Park and Preserve to the east of the Pebble deposit and Katmai National Park and Preserve to the south. The Togiak National Wildlife Refuge is also in the region. These nationally recognized protected areas and the wildlife they support all contribute to a vital tourism industry in the Bristol Bay region.
The Bristol Bay watershed has been home to Alaska Natives for at least 10,000 years. Of the approximately 7,000 people who live in the Bristol Bay region, 64 percent are Alaska Natives. Their way of life depends directly on the health of the salmon-based ecosystem. In an article describing the impacts of mining in the Bristol Bay region on Alaska Natives, The Redoubt Reporter, a weekly community newspaper serving the area, writes:
[S]almon is more than just what’s for dinner. Salmon feeds the ways in which the culture operates. Functionally and economically, salmon is the cornerstone. Subsistence fishing for salmon is the most readily available way to fill freezers and pantry shelves.
In parallel with the region’s cash economy, subsistence harvest of fish and other wildlife in Bristol Bay represents a critical resource for its native communities. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimated that between 2002 and 2011 the annual harvest of wild foods was 1,087 pounds per household, with salmon comprising 56 percent of that total. The agency also projects that replacing wild foods gathered in the subsistence harvest would cost between $4,851 and $14,973 per household but notes that “the cultural, social and nutritional” value of the wild foods would probably be impossible to replace with imports. Declines in salmon stocks from mining impacts on habitat would mean both a loss of household income and the erosion of an indigenous way of life that has thrived for millennia.
Consequently, the top priority for policymakers must be to protect the fish that serve as the central pillar for subsistence-based communities and their way of life. As Bobby Andrew, a Yup’ik elder stated, “We can’t eat gold. But we can eat salmon.”
The Proposed Pebble Project
While there are at least 16 active mining claims in the headwaters of Bristol Bay, the Pebble Project has gained most of the attention because it is furthest along in the planning process. British mining giant Anglo American and the Canadian firm Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd. together form the Pebble Limited Partnership that would own and operate the Pebble Project. Anglo American is the second-largest mining company in the world and made $6.2 billion in profits last year.
As noted above, the Pebble Limited Partnership has yet to apply for permits for the Pebble Project, but preliminary reports and government filings provide an idea of its size, scale and specifics. In addition, all large open-pit mines share certain characteristics irrespective of location or owner, which can therefore be expected with the Pebble Project. And an economic-impact study contracted by the Pebble Limited Partnership and released in May based its findings on the extraction of 5.9 billion metric tons of ore, a mine “comparable in size and scale to the plans [the Pebble Limited Partnership] will ultimately submit for approval.”
Even under normal mining operations—free of accidents or natural disasters—the Pebble Project would likely have significant environmental impacts on the natural character of the Bristol Bay headwaters. All of the necessary infrastructure will cumulatively bring tremendous industrialization of a truly unspoiled landscape, destroying streams and wetlands. According to the EPA’s draft watershed assessment of the Bristol Bay region, even without a disaster, mining the Pebble deposit would likely cause the degradation or loss of between 24 miles and 90 miles of streams and between 1,200 acres and 4,800 acres of wetlands, depending on various mine-size scenarios.
The mine itself will likely have both underground and open-pit components, meaning that the rocks, trees and soil overlaying the desired precious metals would all have to be removed. The open pit would consist of a large hole in the ground “up to three miles wide and thousands of feet deep,” according to FRONTLINE. Because the type of ore present in the Pebble deposit is very diffuse, requiring the excavation and processing of vast quantities of earth and rock to be economical, the Pebble Project could be the largest open-pit mine in North America and one of the largest in the world.
Additionally, the Pebble Project could generate up to 10 billion tons of waste, all of which would need to be stored on-site in vast rock piles and tailings reservoirs. These reservoirs, which will hold toxic waste, including the chemicals used to leach out the precious metals from the mined ore, require the construction of large dams and impoundments and then the filling in of previously untouched valleys. Depending on the actual size of the open-pit mine, the Pebble Project will likely require multiple tailings-storage reservoirs, each with multiple dams and earthen embankments.
In addition to the mine, waste rock and tailings piles, the Pebble Project will also require:
- A new road nearly 100 miles long from the mine site to the coast, which will necessitate more than 40 stream crossings that could block fish access to all upstream habitat
- Four 86-mile-long pipelines to transport various substances to and away from the mine site, including toxic copper slurry
- A new deep-water port to facilitate the transport of concrete, diesel and other materials
And, of course, a major infrastructure project such as this needs energy, but no electricity grid exists in the region. The Pebble Limited Partnership has proposed building a 378-megawatt natural-gas-fired power plant at the mine site and another eight megawatt unit at the port, enough electricity for nearly 300,000 homes (compared to the 311,000 housing units in the entire state of Alaska). Because there are not enough natural-gas resources in the Bristol Bay area, the fuel will need to be transferred to the site via one of the new pipelines mentioned above.
In addition to the likely general operating impacts of the Pebble Project, the legacy of open-pit mining around the world raises serious questions about the potential environmental and economic impacts if a problem does occur. Perhaps the worst-case scenario would be the failure of a tailings dam, which retains the reservoir in which toxic mining waste is stored. These reservoirs not only destroy the valleys in which they are built but also pose grave risks to the waters downstream. Failures in the dams that retain the tailings could cause downstream salmon habitat to be degraded for decades. While the EPA considers failure of a tailings dam unlikely, one study found that between 1960 and 2000 there were a total of 72 tailings-dam accidents in the U.S. alone. Moreover, this risk would remain for decades or even centuries after the mine has ceased operations. As the EPA wrote in its second draft watershed assessment, “accidents and failures always happen in complex and long-lasting operations.”
The Pebble deposit is also located within the most seismically active region on Earth. While the exact seismicity of the mine site has not yet been studied, one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded in North America—the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake, measuring 9.2 on the Richter Scale—occurred less than 300 miles away from the Pebble deposit. The tremor permanently shifted surface lands over more than 100,000 square miles and was felt more than 1,000 miles away in the state of Washington.
Another risk with any copper-mining operation comes from the unearthed minerals in the waste rock being exposed to air and water, which can often cause a reaction that forms sulfuric acid. This acidity then releases residual copper from the waste dumps and tailings reservoirs, creating a toxic brew known as acid mine drainage, or leachate. While companies extracting the Pebble deposit would be required to follow regulations for containment and treatment of this toxic waste, the EPA says in its draft watershed assessment that even under normal operations, there is a “realistic expectation that leachate would escape the collection systems” and that leakage of leachates, even in the absence of accidents, is “inevitable.”
Salmon are particularly sensitive to copper and may avoid habitat polluted by the metal, suffer stunted growth, or even die if exposed to high-enough concentrations. EPA preliminarily estimates that copper runoff from mining in the Bristol Bay region—such as what could result from the Pebble Project—could directly impact salmon more than seven miles downstream from the mine and indirectly harm the fish through impacts to their food source as far as 35 miles downstream.
Dr. Ron Cohen, a professor of environmental science and engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, summarized it this way: “No matter how well intentioned your effort, this is a place where it is almost impossible to fully control the risk. I would say: ‘Guys, don’t do it here. What a mess.’”
This view is supported by more than 300 natural resources scientists, who recently wrote to President Obama to express their “deep concerns with the prospect of large scale mining in the unique and biologically rich Bristol Bay watershed of Southwest Alaska.”
Or as former Alaska Governor Jay Hammond put it, “The only worse place to put a mine would be my living room.”
Legacy of Mining
Hard-rock mining for precious metals is a dirty industry with a contemptible history in the U.S. The legacy of pollution, abandoned mines and taxpayers left with staggering cleanup bills raises many questions for the policymakers considering large mining proposals, especially when they are in places as special and unique as Bristol Bay.
In terms of pollution, the EPA has estimated that “mining in the western U.S. has contaminated stream reaches in the headwaters of more than 40 percent of the watersheds in the West.” A review by two environmental consulting groups of 25 mines that have operated since 1975 determined that 76 percent of those mines exceeded surface-water or groundwater quality standards for harmful pollutants. The report also determined that 85 percent of mines located near surface water—such as the Pebble Project’s proximity to the Bristol Bay’s watershed—had “elevated acid drainage potential,” meaning the leaking of toxic leachate from the mines.
Cleaning up these contaminated sites is expensive, and taxpayers are often left to foot the bill when mining companies go bust. At Oregon’s Formosa Mine, for instance, more than 18 miles of streams have been polluted by acid mine drainage, affecting salmon, trout and other fish species. After mine operations extracting copper, zinc and other metals stopped in 1993, acid-mine-drainage containment systems at the mine began to fail. The Formosa Mine has become a highly contaminated Superfund site, and because the original owners of the mine “appear to be defunct corporations,” according to the EPA, taxpayers will likely pay the estimated $20 million in cleanup costs. For comparison, the Formosa Mine site produced about 68,000 tons of ore before production ceased, and the Pebble deposit is known to contain more than 11 billion tons of ore.
The Formosa Mine is just one of the approximately 500,000 abandoned mine sites in 32 states across the country. The EPA estimates that cleaning up these abandoned mines could cost taxpayers $35 billion or more.
The Pebble Project’s remote location may pose particularly difficult issues for cleanup capability. Cleaning up and reclaiming abandoned mines requires significant equipment and human capacity, which could be made more difficult with this mine’s isolated location.
As described above, the Pebble Project could have major impacts on the conservation economy of the Bristol Bay region: activities such as commercial fishing, recreation and subsistence harvest by native communities that depend on a healthy ecosystem could be indelibly harmed. As such, the top priority of the federal government should be the protection of the ecosystem that underpins the Bristol Bay region’s unparalleled salmon fishery. This priority stems from the EPA’s duty under the Clean Water Act to maintain the integrity of our nation’s public waters in order to protect fish, wildlife and recreation.
To fulfill this responsibility, the EPA must first finalize its watershed assessment, which will provide state and federal decision makers with a foundation of peer-reviewed scientific information about the region’s ecosystem and natural features.
The final version of the watershed assessment should also identify any specific areas in the region that are of critical importance to the health of the region’s salmon stocks and sensitive to disturbance from mining activities. Delineating these areas will improve the certainty for prospective mining companies, giving them clear guidance on where development is appropriate. As a result, this delineation could also save private investment and taxpayer dollars that might be squandered in futile attempts to win federal permits for mining activities in inappropriate locations.
Finalize the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment
In response to a petition by Alaska Native groups and commercial fishermen, the EPA undertook a watershed assessment of the Bristol Bay region to “evaluate the potential impacts of large scale mining development” in the region. The first draft of the assessment was released in May 2012; after incorporating public comment and expert review on the document, the EPA released a second draft in April. Both drafts of the assessment indicated that even in the absence of a catastrophe, normal mining operations would cause substantial environmental damage. Significant public input was received on the first draft, with more than 230,000 comments submitted. Approximately 90 percent of these comments were in support of the EPA’s findings, according to the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association.
While the Pebble Limited Partnership and its allies in Congress have criticized the EPA for using what they termed “hypothetical” mining plans when developing the watershed assessment, the agency noted in the second draft of its report that:
Like all risk assessments, this assessment is based on scenarios that define a set of possible future activities. To assess mining-related stressors that could affect ecological resources in the watershed, we developed realistic mine scenarios that include a range of mine sizes and operating conditions. These mine scenarios are based on the Pebble deposit because it is the best-characterized mineral resource and the most likely to be developed in the near term.
In addition, the Pebble Limited Partnership’s May economic-impact study projected jobs and value from a proposed mine that is the size of the largest of three possible scenarios for production considered in the EPA’s draft watershed assessment, indicating that the agency’s study is realistic and on target rather than hypothetical.
Furthermore, the scope and findings of the first draft watershed assessment were supported by a group of 300 independent ecology and natural-resources scientists in April. As these scientists wrote in a supporting letter:
We applaud the EPA for its effort to establish a solid science-based summary from which to evaluate likely impacts to Bristol Bay from large-scale mine development. We believe that the preponderance of evidence shows clearly that gold and copper mining in the Bristol Bay watershed threatens a world-class fishery and uniquely rich ecosystem, and we urge the Administration to act quickly to protect the area.
Because it is crucial to understand the complex ecology and water resources of the Bristol Bay region before any further steps are taken toward development, the EPA should finalize this scientific assessment so its findings can be used for future federal and state permitting decisions.
Identify Areas That Are Not Appropriate for Mining Waste
In order to build the Pebble mine, the Pebble Limited Partnership (and any other companies interested in mining in the Bristol Bay watershed) will need to get numerous permits, including one from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dispose of mine waste into nearby waterways and wetlands.
Much evidence already suggests that mining in the Bristol Bay watershed could have significant adverse impacts on the region’s salmon habitat and the associated commercial and recreational industries. In its final watershed assessment, the EPA should identify any areas that are critical to maintaining the health of the ecosystem and salmon stocks and therefore are too sensitive to serve as mining-waste sites.
Pinpointing these highly sensitive areas within the Bristol Bay watershed would not only reduce the risks from mining activities to salmon and the region’s thousands of salmon-dependent jobs, but it would also provide the mining industry improved certainty for its future permitting and investment decisions. Given what we know about Bristol Bay’s fisheries and the sensitivity of the upstream salmon habitat to mine activities, such advance planning is well warranted to ensure protection of the region’s fisheries and wildlife before the approval of any industrial development.
Commercial fishermen and salmon processors would also reap the benefit of improved certainty from this action. Every year salmon-dependent businesses must make major investments and logistical commitments to run their boats, hire crews and set up seasonal processing facilities with thousands of workers, all based on a reasonable expectation of the fish returning in their historical numbers. Because of its potential impacts on fish populations, unrestricted mining in the Bristol Bay region could create uncertainty and liability for salmon-dependent businesses, reducing investment and jobs throughout the industry.
It is also important to note that the EPA has authority under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act (33 USC § 1344) to “deny or restrict” the use of any area as a mining-waste disposal site should it determine that there would be an “unacceptable adverse effect on municipal water supplies, shellfish beds and fishery areas (including spawning and breeding areas), wildlife or recreational areas.” Numerous environmental organizations, commercial fishing groups and native communities have called on the EPA to use this authority to “prohibit the disposal of mine waste in Bristol Bay’s pristine waters.”
Alaska’s Bristol Bay region is an outstanding example of America’s conservation economy, with a thriving salmon fishery that supports the equivalent of nearly 10,000 full-time jobs, $1.5 billion in economic output and the well-being and culture of the region’s Alaska Native communities. All of this could be put at risk by proposals to mine in the Bristol Bay watershed, with the most significant threat posed by the Pebble Project.
Even barring an accident or natural disaster, the EPA’s draft watershed assessment has indicated that the Pebble Project could have major impacts on the undeveloped character of the area, including the destruction of streams and wetlands, acid mine drainage and the construction of huge containment structures to hold toxic tailings that will last in perpetuity. If there were to be a failure of a tailings dam or other accidental discharge of toxic mining waste, the impacts on the Bristol Bay salmon fisheries would be felt for decades to come.
With the above facts in mind, the EPA should finalize its draft watershed assessment as soon as possible, so that it and other federal and state agencies can use the document for upcoming permitting decisions. Additionally, in the final version of the watershed assessment, the agency should identify any areas that are too sensitive to serve as mining-waste dumps because they are essential to maintaining the health of the salmon-based ecosystem and the jobs that depend on it. Taking this action would allow companies such as the Pebble Limited Partnership to determine whether mining in the region still makes business sense.
The Pebble Project forces policymakers to decide whether large-scale industrial development is compatible with the unspoiled character of the Bristol Bay region. It also requires them to compare the relative costs and short-term benefits of extractive industries to those of a sustainable conservation economy. The Pebble Project represents a key litmus test for determining what kind of economy and natural-resources policy we want in America in the century ahead.
Visit EcoWatch’s BIODIVERSITY page for more related news on this topic.
By Sharon Buccino
This week, Secretary Haaland chose a visit to Bears Ears National Monument as her first trip as Interior Secretary. She is spending three days in Bluff, Utah, a small town just outside the monument, listening to representatives of the five tribes who first proposed its designation to President Obama in 2015. This is the same town where former Secretary Sally Jewell spent several hours at a public hearing in July 2016 before recommending the monument's designation to President Obama.
By Anthony Richardson, Chhaya Chaudhary, David Schoeman, and Mark John Costello
The tropical water at the equator is renowned for having the richest diversity of marine life on Earth, with vibrant coral reefs and large aggregations of tunas, sea turtles, manta rays and whale sharks. The number of marine species naturally tapers off as you head towards the poles.
The Bell Curve is Warping Dangerously<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNjAzODUwNi9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3NzE1OTU4N30.qQL3P1IvA7Cwj_UbsrAL6MVZvafXGZc7hlAFieLPvso/img.png?width=980" id="9bbfd" width="1580" height="872" data-rm-shortcode-id="16ca57badee20ad55037706875f813f4" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
If you look at each line in this chart, you can see a slight dip in total species richness between 1955 and 1974. This deepens substantially in the following decades. Anthony Richardson, Author provided<p>This global pattern — where the number of species starts lower at the poles and peaks at the equator — results in a bell-shaped gradient of species richness. We looked at distribution records for nearly 50,000 marine species collected since 1955 and found a growing dip over time in this bell shape.</p>
This Has Happened Before<p>We shouldn't be surprised global biodiversity has responded so rapidly to global warming. This has happened before, and with dramatic consequences.</p><p><strong>252 million years ago…</strong></p><p>At the end of the Permian geological period about 252 million years ago, global temperatures warmed by 10℃ over 30,000-60,000 years as a result of greenhouse gas emissions from volcano eruptions in Siberia.</p><p><a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/117/30/17578" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">A 2020 study</a> of the fossils from that time shows the pronounced peak in biodiversity at the equator flattened and spread. During this mammoth rearranging of global biodiversity, 90% of all marine species were killed.</p><p><strong>125,000 years ago…</strong></p><p><a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/109/52/21378" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">A 2012 study showed</a> that more recently, during the rapid warming around 125,000 years ago, there was a similar swift movement of reef corals away from the tropics, as documented in the fossil record. The result was a pattern similar to the one we describe, although there was no associated mass extinction.</p><p>Authors of the study suggested their results might foreshadow the effects of our current global warming, ominously warning there could be mass extinctions in the near future as species move into the subtropics, where they might struggle to compete and adapt.</p><p><strong>Today…</strong></p><p><a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/117/23/12891" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">During the last ice age</a>, which ended around 15,000 years ago, the richness of forams (a type of hard-shelled, single-celled plankton) peaked at the equator and has been dropping there ever since. This is significant as plankton is a keystone species in the foodweb.</p><p>Our study shows that decline has accelerated in recent decades due to human-driven climate change.</p>
The Profound Implications<p>Losing species in tropical ecosystems means ecological resilience to environmental changes is reduced, potentially compromising ecosystem persistence.</p><p>In subtropical ecosystems, species richness is increasing. This means there'll be species invaders, novel predator-prey interactions, and new competitive relationships. For example, <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-09-13/sydney-growing-own-coral-reef-with-help-from-tropical-fish/11466192" target="_blank">tropical fish</a> moving into Sydney Harbour compete with temperate species for food and habitat.</p><p>This could result in ecosystem collapse — as was seen at the boundary between the Permian and Triassic periods — in which species go extinct and ecosystem services (such as food supplies) are permanently altered.</p><p>The changes we describe will also have profound implications for human livelihoods. For example, many tropical island nations depend on the revenue from tuna fishing fleets through the selling of licenses in their territorial waters. Highly mobile tuna species are likely to move rapidly toward the subtropics, potentially beyond sovereign waters of island nations.</p><p><span></span>Similarly, many reef species important for artisanal fishers — and highly mobile megafauna such as whale sharks, manta rays and sea turtles that support tourism — are also likely to move toward the subtropics.</p><p>The movement of commercial and artisanal fish and marine megafauna could compromise the ability of tropical nations to meet the <a href="https://sdgs.un.org/goals" target="_blank">Sustainable Development Goals</a> concerning zero hunger and marine life.</p>
Is There Anything We Can Do?<p>One pathway is laid out in the Paris Climate Accords and involves aggressively reducing our emissions. Other opportunities are also emerging that could help safeguard biodiversity and hopefully minimise the worst impacts of it shifting away from the equator.</p><p>Currently 2.7% of the ocean is conserved in <a href="https://mpatlas.org/" target="_blank">fully or highly protected reserves</a>. This is well short of the 10% target by 2020 under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.</p><p>But <a href="https://www.gov.uk/government/topical-events/global-ocean-alliance-30by30-initiative/about#global-ocean-alliance-members" target="_blank">a group of 41 nations</a> is pushing to set a new target of protecting 30% of the ocean by 2030.</p><p>This "30 by 30" target could ban seafloor mining and remove fishing in reserves that can destroy habitats and release as much carbon dioxide as <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-021-03371-z" target="_blank">global aviation</a>. These measures would remove pressures on biodiversity and promote ecological resilience.</p><p>Designing climate-smart reserves could further protect biodiversity from future changes. For example, reserves for marine life could be placed in refugia where the climate will be stable over the foreseeable future.</p><p>We now have evidence that climate change is impacting the best-known and strongest global pattern in ecology. We should not delay actions to try to mitigate this.</p><p><em><a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/anthony-richardson-100303" target="_blank">Anthony Richardson</a>: Professor, The University of Queensland. <a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/chhaya-chaudhary-1223419" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Chhaya Chaudhary</a>: University of Auckland, <a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/david-schoeman-111544" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">David Schoeman</a>: Professor of Global-Change Ecology, University of the Sunshine Coast, <a href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/mark-john-costello-1223418" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mark John Costello</a>: Professor, University of Auckland</em></p><p><em>Disclosure statement: Anthony Richardson receives funding from the Australian Research Council.</em></p><p><em>Chhaya Chaudhary works for Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main, Germany. During her PhD studies (2014- 2019), she received part- funding from the European Marine Observation Data Network (EMODnet) Biology project funded by the European Commission's Directorate—General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries (DG MARE), and received U21 Doctoral Mobility Scholarship from the University of Auckland in 2016.</em></p><p><em>David Schoeman receives funding from the Australian Research Council.</em></p><p><em>Mark John Costello does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-life-is-fleeing-the-equator-to-cooler-waters-history-tells-us-this-could-trigger-a-mass-extinction-event-158424" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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In celebration of Earth Day, a star-studded cast is giving fans a rare glimpse into the secret lives of some of the planet's most majestic animals: whales. In "Secrets of the Whales," a four-part documentary series by renowned National Geographic Photographer and Explorer Brian Skerry and Executive Producer James Cameron, viewers plunge deep into the lives and worlds of five different whale species.
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b102b19b2719f50272ab718c44703dd0"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/xOySOlB78dM?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Herring are a primary food source for Norway's orcas. Luis Lamar / National Geographic for Disney+
Belugas are extremely social creatures with a varied vocal range. Peter Kragh / National Geographic for Disney+
A Southern Right whales is pictured in the accompanying book, "Secrets of the Whales." Brian Skerry / National Geographic
The coronavirus has isolated many of us in our homes this year. We've been forced to slow down a little, maybe looking out our windows, becoming more in tune with the rhythms of our yards. Perhaps we've begun to notice more, like the birds hopping around in the bushes out back, wondering (maybe for the first time) what they are.
A Coeligena helianthea hummingbird is photographed during a birdwatching trail at the Monserrate hill in Bogota on November 11, 2020. Colombia is the country with the largest bird diversity in the world, home to about 1,934 different bird species, a fifth of the total known. JUAN BARRETO / AFP / Getty Images
1. Choosing the Right Binoculars<p>Binoculars are a relatively indispensable tool for most birders – but, for those just starting out, it might not yet be worth the several-hundred-dollar investment. If you aren't able to scour the attics of friends or borrow a pair from a fellow bird watcher, some local birding and naturalist groups have <a href="https://vashonaudubon.org/all-about-vashon-birds/binoculars-check-out/" target="_blank">binocular loaning programs</a> for members, allowing you to plan ahead for a day (or week) of birding.</p><p>When you're ready to take the plunge, choosing a pair or binoculars should take some careful deliberation based on your needs and preferences; some <a href="https://www.birdwatchersdigest.com/bwdsite/explore/optics/top-10-tips-buying-binoculars-bird-watching.php" target="_blank">major considerations</a> might include size, ease of use, <a href="https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/binoculars.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">magnification</a>, and price. While professional binoculars can easily run north of $1,000, there are plenty of perfectly suitable entry-level binoculars under $200. You might not get the perfect precision and clarity of more elite models, but a less expensive pair will allow you to strengthen your birding skills while deciding if you're interested in investing in a premium pair.</p><p>For a budget-friendly option, check out resale options on eBay, Facebook marketplace, or neighborhood yard sales: you might find a nicer pair whose retail price isn't within your budget.</p>
2. Know What Birds Are in Your Area<p>When I began to pay more attention to the birds just outside my apartment building, I started to learn what species have always been around me: European starlings, house sparrows, blue jays, black capped chickadees, and the occasional red-bellied woodpecker. They had always been there, but I hadn't ever taken the time to identify them. Once you learn to <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/get-know-these-20-common-birds_" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recognize common birds</a> in your area, you'll be able to identify the typical species right outside your window and in your community. Of course, permanent residential birds in your neighborhood will <a href="https://nestwatch.org/learn/focal-species/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">vary by region</a>, as will those migrating through it.</p>
3. Get Out and Explore<p>Venturing elsewhere might allow you to spot some different species beyond those frequenting your backyard. Anywhere with water or greenery offers a place for birding; as an urbanite myself, I've found that even small- and mid-sized parks in New York City allow me to find more elusive birds (although Central Park takes the crown for an afternoon of urban birding).</p><p>If you are able to travel a bit further from home, <a href="https://www.fws.gov/refuges/" target="_blank">national wildlife refuges</a> and <a href="https://www.americasstateparks.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">state/national parks</a> are excellent places to explore bird habitats and perhaps log some less-common sightings. The American Birding Association also lists <a href="https://www.aba.org/aba-area-birding-trails/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">birding trails by state</a>, and Audubon and BirdLife International identify <a href="https://www.audubon.org/important-bird-areas" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Important Bird Areas (IBAs)</a> across the country – important bird habitats and iconic places that activists are fighting to protect – where birders can spot birds of significance.</p>
4. Finding a Bird: Stop, Look, Listen, Repeat<p>The National Audubon Society recommends the "<a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/how-find-bird" target="_blank">stop, look, listen, repeat</a>" mantra when seeking and identifying birds.</p><p>First and foremost, spotting birds requires attention. Stopping – getting out of the car, pausing on the sidewalk, trail, or in the backyard to look up – is the most important step.</p><p>When looking for birds, try to avoid gazing wildly around; rather, scan your surroundings, focusing on any odd shapes or shadows, trying to think about where a bird might perch (power lines, fence posts, branches), or keep an eye on the sky for flying eagles and hawks. In open areas like fields and beaches, you might have a more panoramic view, and can take in different sections of the landscape at a time. Look around with the naked eye before reaching for the binoculars to hone in.</p><p>While it can be hard to sift through the noise, listening for birds is perhaps an even more important element of bird watching than looking. Once you spend more time in the field, you'll be able to parse apart the racket and identify specific species, especially aided by Audubon's Bird Guide app or by learning from their <a href="https://www.audubon.org/section/birding-ear" target="_blank">Birding by Ear series</a>.</p><p>Repeat this pattern as you continue on your way, stopping to look and listen for birds as you go, rather than waiting for them to come to you. </p>
5. Identification<p>When you head out for a day of bird watching – especially when you're hoping to spot some new species – you'll want to be armed with the tools to identify what you see. <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/how-identify-birds" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Major considerations when identifying birds</a> are their group (such as owls, hawks, or sparrow-like birds), size and shape, behavior, voice, field marks, season, and habitat.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.sibleyguides.com/about/the-sibley-guide-to-birds/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sibley Guide to Birds</a> and the <a href="https://www.hmhbooks.com/shop/books/peterson-field-guide-to-birds-of-north-america-second-edition/9781328771445" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Peterson Field Guide</a> are widely considered the best books for identifying birds in North America, although many <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/what-bird-guide-best-you" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">specialized guides</a> focus on specific species or regions as well.</p><p>Plenty of <a href="https://blog.nature.org/science/2013/05/27/boucher-bird-blog-apps-smart-birder/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">bird identification apps</a> have popped up in recent years – including National Geographic Birds, Sibley eGuide to Birds, iNaturalist, Merlin Bird ID, and Birdsnap – which are basically a <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/the-best-birding-apps-and-field-guides" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">field guide in your pocket</a>. I'm partial to the Audubon Bird Guide, which allows users to filter by common identifiers, including a bird's habitat, color, activity, tail shape, and general type, adding them all to a personal map to view your sightings.</p>
6. Recording Your Sightings<p><span>As you deepen your commitment to birding, you might join the community of birders that track and quantify their sightings, building their </span><a href="https://www.thespruce.com/what-birds-count-on-a-life-list-386704#:~:text=A%20life%20list%20is%20a,which%20birds%20you%20have%20seen." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">life list</a><span>.</span></p><p>While a standard notebook noting the date, species name, habitat, vocalizations, or any other data you wish to include will suffice, some birders opt for a more <a href="https://www.riteintherain.com/no-195-birders-journal" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">structured birder's journal</a> with pre-determined fields to record your encounters, take notes, draw sketches, etc.</p><p>Many birders also choose to record their sightings online and in shared databases (which include many of the field guide apps), often pinpointing them on a map for others to view. Launched by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon, <a href="https://ebird.org/home" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eBird is one of the largest databases and citizen science projects around birding</a>, where hundreds of thousands of birders enter their sightings, and users can explore birds in regions and hotspots around the world. Users can also record their sightings on the <a href="https://apps.apple.com/us/app/ebird/id988799279" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eBird app</a>.</p>
7. Attracting Birds to Your Own Yard<p>Feeding birds is a common phenomenon: more than 40% of Americans maintain a birdfeeder to attract birds and watch them feast.</p><p>Not all birdfeed is created equal, however. Many commercial varieties are mostly made with "fillers" (oats, red millet, etc.) that birds will largely leave untouched. After researching what birds to expect in your area – and which ones you want to attract – you can create your own birdfeed with <a href="https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/types-of-bird-seed-a-quick-guide/?pid=1142" target="_blank">seeds that will appeal to them</a>.</p><p>Beyond filling a birdfeeder, <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/eco-friendly-lawn-2651194858.html" target="_self">transforming your yard into an eco-friendly oasis</a> is by far the best way to attract birds. Choosing to forgo mowing your lawn, planting native flowers and grasses, and ditching the pesticides will bring back the bugs that birds feed on, and provide a safe haven in which birds can happily live and eat.</p><p>While it's widely considered acceptable – and even beneficial – to feed birds with appropriate seeds, communal birdfeeders often <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/to-feed-or-not-feed" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">foster unlikely interactions between different species</a>, who can then transmit harmful diseases and parasites to one another. Maintaining several bird feeders with different types of seeds might keep different species from coming into contact, and feeders can be <a href="https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/how-to-clean-your-bird-feeder/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cleaned to prevent the spread of infection</a>.</p>
8. Inclusivity and Anti-Racism in the Birding Community<p>Like all outdoor activities and areas of scientific study, birding communities are subject to racist and discriminatory ideologies. Black birders have long experienced discrimination and underrepresentation in outdoor spaces. The work of organizations like the <a href="https://www.instagram.com/birdersfund/" target="_blank">Black & Latinx Birders Fund</a>, <a href="https://www.instagram.com/birdability/" target="_blank">Birdability</a>, and <a href="https://www.instagram.com/feministbirdclub/" target="_blank">Feminist Bird Club</a> highlight the contributions and importance of birders of color, birders with disabilities, and women and LGBTQ+ birders to the birding community, as do activists and naturalists like <a href="https://www.instagram.com/hood__naturalist/" target="_blank">Corina Newsome</a> and <a href="https://www.instagram.com/tykeejames/" target="_blank">Tykee James</a>. The work of <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/its-bird-new-comic-written-central-park-birder-christian-cooper" target="_blank">Christian Cooper</a>, <a href="https://camilledungy.com/publications/" target="_blank">Camille Dungy</a> (read her poem <a href="https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/58363/frequently-asked-questions-10" target="_blank">Frequently Asked Questions: 10</a>), and <a href="https://orionmagazine.org/article/9-rules-for-the-black-birdwatcher/" target="_blank">J. Drew Lanham</a> – including his essay "<a href="https://lithub.com/birding-while-black/" target="_blank">Birding While Black</a>" – are a great place to start.</p><p>Getting involved in birding means educating ourselves on these issues and taking meaningful action; the work of <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/its-bird-new-comic-written-central-park-birder-christian-cooper" target="_blank">Christian Cooper</a> and <a href="https://orionmagazine.org/article/9-rules-for-the-black-birdwatcher/" target="_blank">J. Drew Lanham</a> – including his essay "<a href="https://lithub.com/birding-while-black/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Birding While Black</a>" – are a great place to start. Just as birders are activists for protecting habitats and natural areas, we must also be active and aware of inclusivity in these spaces.</p>
9. Get Involved<p>To learn from and enjoy the company of other birders, check out local birding groups in your area to join. Many Audubon chapters host trips, meetings, and bird walks for members. The American Birding Association even maintains a <a href="https://www.aba.org/festivals-events/" target="_blank">directory of birding festivals</a> across the country.</p><p>Volunteering for birds is also a great way to meet other birders and take action for birds in your community; local organizations might have opportunities for assisting with habitat restoration or helping at birding centers.</p><p>Like all wildlife, climate change and habitat destruction threaten the livelihood of birds, eliminating their breeding grounds and food sources. A <a href="https://www.audubon.org/climate/survivalbydegrees" target="_blank">2019 report released by the National Audubon Society</a> found that two-thirds of North American birds may face extinction if global temperatures rise 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. Staying informed about and taking action for legislation designed to protect birds and our climate – such as the recent <a href="https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/5552/text" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Migratory Bird Protection Act</a> – is important for ensuring a livable future for wildlife and humans alike.</p><p><em>Linnea graduated from Skidmore College in 2019 with a Bachelor's degree in English and Environmental Studies, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Most recently, Linnea worked at Hunger Free America, and has interned with WHYY in Philadelphia, Saratoga Living Magazine, and the Sierra Club in Washington, DC. </em><em>Linnea enjoys hiking and spending time outdoors, reading, practicing her German, and volunteering on farms and gardens and for environmental justice efforts in her community. Along with journalism, she is also an essayist and writer of creative nonfiction.</em></p>
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