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Why We're Studying the Bristol Bay Watershed
EPA conducted a scientific assessment of the Bristol Bay watershed to understand how large-scale mining could potentially affect water quality and salmon ecosystems in the Bristol Bay watershed - home to one of the largest salmon populations in the world and an area with significant mineral resources.
We launched the study in response to petitions from federally-recognized tribes and others who wrote to EPA with concerns about how large-scale mining could impact Bristol Bay fisheries. Other tribes and stakeholders requested that EPA wait for mining permit applications to determine the potential environmental impacts of mining. The assessment will provide a better understanding of the Bristol Bay Watershed and will inform consideration of development in the area.
The Bristol Bay watershed is composed of nine major rivers. Our assessment focuses primarily on the Kvichak and Nushagak river drainages, the main areas in the watershed open to large-scale resource development.
What do we expect to learn?
Health of salmon and ecological resources
We characterize the current health and conditions of Bristol Bay salmon populations and salmon habitat in the Kvichak and Nushagak watersheds. We also describe the general conditions of ecological resources in Bristol Bay, including 35 fish species, 190 bird species, and more than 40 terrestrial animal species.
Potential impacts of mining
We describe the potential impacts of large-scale porphyry copper, gold and molybdenum mining in the Bristol Bay Watershed. Using publicly available mining plans for Bristol Bay and existing information on mining, we use plausible mining scenarios to describe potential impacts of mining to salmon and salmon habitat. We investigate mining practices that could minimize risks to the Bristol Bay Watershed, and assess the success and failure rates of these mitigation practices.
Role of salmon in indigenous populations and economy
We describe the role of salmon in Alaska Native cultures present in the Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds. The Yup’ik and Dena’ina are two of the last intact, sustainable, salmon-based cultures in the world. There are 31 Alaska Native Villages in Bristol Bay, and many residents of native villages depend on a salmon subsistence-based economy.
In addition, we examine the economic state of the greater Bristol Bay fisheries industry and the dependence of non-native populations on the salmon resource.
How is the assessment being conducted?
EPA compiled a team of scientists with expertise in fisheries biology, mining, geochemisty, anthropology and other disciplines to develop the draft Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment. These experts reviewed a range of existing information compiled by the State of Alaska, federal resource agencies, tribes and scientific institutions from around the world. The sources include peer-reviewed research published in scientific journals, agency staff, tribal elders and input from other experts.
In May 2012, we submitted our findings for public comment and an independent scientific peer review process. The peer review panel was comprised of scientists and experts not involved in the assessment. This panel and public input provided EPA with feedback the agency is using to revise and update the assessment.