A group of Bristol Bay fishermen has filed suit to stop the region's seafood marketing group from spending funds that they say are aimed at fighting the development of Pebble Mine. The mine's developer is footing the bill for the lawsuit.

Gary Nielsen, Trefim Andrew, Tim Anelon, Henry Olympic, and Abe and Braden Williams claim the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association is using $250,000 on efforts to stop the mine. That money is earmarked for marketing local fish, and is being "unlawfully spent," they say.

Andy Wink, executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association.

"The mine presents a significant threat to this fishery's bright future, especially if the process is going to omit rigorous scientific analysis and ignore the inconvenient concerns of downstream stakeholders," said Andy Wink, the association's executive director.

The development association was founded in 2005 and is funded through a 1 percent tax on the region's seafood harvest. All six plaintiffs are members. Abe Williams is also the Pebble Partnership's director of regional affairs, has long been a vocal advocate of the mine and the state's permitting process, and served as the association's board president from 2015 to 2016.

The filing mentions two contracts, one with the United Tribes of Bristol Bay and one with the nonprofit advocacy group SalmonState. The stated respective goals of the funds include "educating the public about how to contact state and federal officials to communicate their views on the Pebble Mine project, and to assist the public in preparing testimony regarding the same," and for "technical analysis and review of information related to the Pebble Mine Draft Environment Statement."

“I don’t want my permit tax dollars to do anything other than promote wild salmon, period," Nielsen told the Anchorage Daily News.

Asking questions about the mine, advocates say, is not a departure from the association's mission.

"The Pebble Mine's scoping period was very concerning to us, in terms of due diligence and due process," said Wink. "The draft scoping report was released in May 2018 and was nearly identical to the final scoping report released just a few months later. We were surprised that many of the most critical issues raised in comments during the scoping period were not addressed in the final scoping report."

Mike Heatwole, a spokesman for Pebble, said the mining developer agreed to fund the lawsuit because the fishermen have limited funds.

Heatwole confirmed to KTUU that the plaintiffs were part of a group of "several fishermen that we've gotten to know over the years."

"This is the most valuable wild salmon fishery in the world," said Andy Wink, the association's executive director. "It is the economic foundation of the region and still employs commercial fishermen from 48 states. It has a terrific opportunity to occupy a large, premium niche in the global salmon market, and we are working to realize that future."

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

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