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Mounting Fear of Impacts on Salmon Streams by New Mining Project

For Indigenous tribes living in Alaska’s remote Yukon-Kuskokwim region, southwest of the state, the future is bleak and uncertain. Tribal councils worry that plans to construct a 6,474-hectare (15,990 acres) open-pit gold mine near the Kuskokwim River watershed will have grave impacts on salmon habitats, their traditional ways of life and their health.

“This development could possibly destroy our livelihood, rivers and sea mammals that we depend on,” said Fred Phillips, representative of the Indigenous Village of Kwigillingok tribal council. According to him, tribes are not willing to take the risk.

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta (YKD) drainage is part of a rich biome encompassing coastal wetlands, tundra and mountains that supports the subsistence lifestyle of three distinct Alaskan Native groups; The Yup’ik, Cup’ik and Athabascan. To access the remote region, one needs to go by boat when the Kuskokwim River is flowing, or truck, snow machine and four-wheeler when the river is frozen.

Draining into the Bering Sea to the west, the Kuskokwim River, and many of its tributaries, are designated as Essential Fish Habitat (EFH), under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act for Pacific Salmon. This is a legislation that manages marine fisheries in US waters.

The sprawling river is a vital source of food for the 38 communities that reside alongside it, serving as a running ground for the chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), chum salmon (Oncorhynchus keta), coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch), pink salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha) and sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka). Given the remoteness of the region, the communities rely on subsistence fishing. Salmon makes up more than 50 percent of the tribe’s annual diet.

A Mining Site Near Salmon Habitats

All salmon species usually migrate from the oceans late spring or early summer, but spawn during different months during the two seasons. While no endangered or threatened fish species are found in the drainage, the chinook salmon are of special concern in recent years due to their low population. The Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) record limited numbers of sockeye and pink salmon in Crooked Creek, one of the many tributaries of the river. This includes 12 other species of fish, including the Dolly Varden trout (Salvelinus malma), Arctic grayling (Thymallus arcticus), pike fish (Esox lucius) and two species of whitefish.

So, when Canadian-based mining companies NovaGold and Barrick Gold, through subsidiary Donlin Gold, proposed a plan to construct a massive open-pit gold mine along a tributary of the Kuskokwim about a decade ago, most affected communities disagreed. In 2019, 35 of 37 tribal governments voted in disapproval.

They feared that negative construction and mining impacts on wildlife and environment cited in the EIS would lead to disrupted access to subsistence hunting and fishing, in addition to filing fragile wetlands.

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