Bristol Bay fishermen, tribal leaders and fisheries advocates once again offered their testimony on the value of protections for the world's most productive sockeye salmon habitat.

On Monday, March 2, members of the Bristol Bay Defense Alliance testified in federal district court in support of a lawsuit the group filed against the Environmental Protection Agency in October.

The suit asserts the EPA’s withdrawal of proposed Clean Water Act protections was arbitrary and unlawful, and runs counter to the scientific and public record. The plaintiffs now await a ruling from Judge Sharon Gleason on whether the suit will move forward.

“Although we are now waiting for the judge’s ruling in this case, our primary goal is unchanged: protecting and promoting the Bristol Bay fishery," said Andy Wink, executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association. "The science still supports 404 protections in Bristol Bay, and we will continue working to secure them.”

In 2010, six Bristol Bay Tribes requested the protections and soon were supported in the effort by commercial and sport fishing groups.

“Bristol Bay’s native people have been stewards of our lands and water since time immemorial," said Alannah Hurley, executive director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay. "Our resolve to protect them for future generations is steadfast, and we look forward to a decision from the judge on the protections our region has fought over a decade to secure.”

In 2014, EPA issued a proposed determination that would have restricted mining discharge in the Bristol Bay watershed were it finalized. The Pebble Limited Partnership filed its own suit to block the protections.

The battle has ebbed and flowed for a decade. But the election of President Donald Trump opened the floodgates for efforts to smooth a path for the mine’s Canadian owners.

In a 2017 settlement of lawsuits between EPA and Pebble Limited, EPA agreed to initiate a proposal to withdraw the proposed protections. The public comments from that action led EPA to pause in continuing with a withdrawal of the proposed protections.

The election of Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy sped the pace of the Trump administration's march toward permitting for Pebble Mine, leading to a withdrawal of the proposed protections in June 2019.

Shortly before that withdrawal, EPA filed technical comments noting a range of serious flaws in the Army Corps environmental impact review of Pebble Mine.

The notes on that review prompted Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski to break her long-held silence on the project and declare, “I’m concerned, as I read through [EPA’s] analysis and critique, that the Corps’ DEIS has failed to meet my standard of a robust and rigorous process.”

The Bristol Bay Defense Alliance is a collaboration between Bristol Bay Native Association, United Tribes of Bristol Bay, Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, Bristol Bay Reserve Association and Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation.

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Jessica Hathaway is the former editor in chief of National Fisherman.

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