The state Board of Fisheries now is squarely in the middle of the noisy battle being waged over Southwest Alaska's large and controversial Pebble copper and gold prospect.
The seven-member Board of Fisheries will consider a proposal to create a fisheries refuge on several Bristol Bay tributaries in and near the Pebble site at its meeting in Dillingham this week.
The fisheries board often weighs in on hotly contested issues involving Bristol Bay salmon fisheries, but usually a mining prospect is not part of the mix.
A clash is inevitable: The streams proposed for protection in a refuge are the same streams the company exploring Pebble says it might need to tap for water if it builds a mine.
As a result, Dillingham -- a commercial fishing hub for western Bristol Bay -- will be crowded with the pro- and anti-Pebble forces this week.
The Fisheries Board will start taking testimony on the proposal Monday but likely won't vote on it until Saturday. Ultimately, the board doesn't have authority to create a refuge. It can only endorse the idea to the Legislature.
Trout Unlimited -- a national sportfishing group -- is helping pay the way for fishermen, biologists and environmentalists to fly to Dillingham to speak on behalf of the refuge.
Some seafood industry executives are also expected to fly in.
Northern Dynasty Mines Inc., the company exploring the Pebble copper, gold and molybdenum prospect near Iliamna Lake, says it will send at least one of its executives from Vancouver, British Columbia.
Dozens of others -- such as Alaska Miners Association and the Alaska Outdoor Council, which both oppose the refuge -- already have mailed their comments to the Fisheries Board.
The mining industry claims that a refuge could block mining on the Pebble claims. The proposal's backers counter that the Pebble project should have to meet higher standards because of its pristine location.
The Pebble prospect -- one of the largest copper deposits in the world -- is in the headwaters of Bristol Bay.
Bristol Bay has the largest sockeye run in the world and the largest king salmon run in Alaska. Its streams are also a sportfishing mecca for rainbow trout.
The world-class mineral deposit is still under exploration and Northern Dynasty expects to have spent $120 million at Pebble by year's end, mostly to study and explore its land. The company has said production would begin in 2011 or later if development goes forward.
To Northern Dynasty's executives, a state refuge around its Pebble mining claims looks like harassment.
"We think this is a dangerous precedent for all industries," said Bruce Jenkins, Northern Dynasty's chief operating officer.
But backers say a refuge would bring higher protections for the area's fish -- such as more stringent standards for keeping toxic metals and other mining-related pollutants out of the water. They don't believe the required state permits are strong enough.
A refuge would create a bigger priority on public uses of the streams, said Lauren Oakes, an Alaska-based officer for Trout Unlimited. Such public uses could include subsistence or sportfishing.
Fisheries Board chairman Art Nelson said the board plans to look carefully at the proposal.
So far, Nelson hasn't made up his mind.
Nelson said Friday he still needs to hear from the refuge's backers on what kind of protections it might offer, and what actual harm it could prevent.
"I want to have a darn good understanding of what I want to ask the Legislature to do. I don't have that at this point," Nelson said Friday.
Nelson and the rest of the board should have plenty of input.
Here's a partial line-up of the forces amassed on either side of this battle:
• The state Department of Natural Resources, Northern Dynasty, the Alaska Miners Association, the Alaska Outdoors Council, the Lake and Peninsula Borough and the Naknek/Kvichak and Lower Bristol Bay regional fish and game advisory groups are against the refuge.
• Several Bristol Bay commercial fishing groups, a consortium of Native village corporations, sportfishing groups, and the Nushagak, Togiak and Homer fish and game advisory groups support the proposal, or an expanded version of it.
One group has been on both sides. This fall, the Iliamna Lake fish and game advisory group voted unanimously to support the refuge proposal. But, after receiving some complaints -- including one from the Lake and Peninsula Borough -- the advisory group voted again, this time unanimously against a refuge.
The Alaska Outdoor Council's position was also a surprise to some sportfishing groups that oppose Pebble. The council is a hunting and sportfishing advocacy group.
"We've never supported (a refuge) to block resource development," said Rod Arno, the council's executive director.
But George Matz, the Homer man who originally proposed the refuge to the Board of Fish, claims a different intent.
Matz said Friday that he wants to ensure that Bristol Bay's salmon fisheries will continue to get the top priority from state regulators.
"A mine would have to be compatible with the refuge, instead of vice versa," he said.
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