Bloom has become a leader in the movement against the mine, helping to bridge gaps between unlikely allies and bring together environmentalists, commercial fishermen, sportfishermen, and native groups. The debate has forced Alaskans into some soul searching. The basic question, she believes, is "What are we willing to possibly throw away for a nonrenewable, extractive industry that primarily benefits foreign corporations?"
"Ten minutes!" she shouted to her crew. When the clock struck 2 P.M.fishing timeit was as if a starting gun had gone off, the tension built up over weeks of preparation finally put into motion.
"Throw the ball!" Bloom yelled, and Ben Dinsdale, one of her crewmen, tossed an orange buoy over the stern. She put it in gear and the net spooled out behind us. The boat and net drift together with the tide and current, picking up salmon as they go.
"There's a hit!" Bloom shouted, pointing at the bobbing cork line as the first salmon of the season thrashed in her net. "There's another onethey're coming from both sides." Before I knew what was happening, Bloom had half jumped, half slid down the ladder to the back deck and was steering the boat from a wheel positioned near the stern.
"Here we go againanother season!"
THE TOWN OF DILLINGHAM, which sits on the northeastern edge of Bristol Bay near the mouth of the Nushagak River, consists of a weathered collection of buildings radiating out from the huge Peter Pan Seafoods salmon-cannery complex. Bristol Bay's first cannery opened nearby in 1884, and salmon remains at the core of the town's identity and economy, which helps explain why it's become a solidly anti-Pebble place. By the time I arrived on June 21, Dillingham's population had doubled from the 2,500 of winter. The two-month salmon season is a harsh, sleep-deprived ordeal, but the fishermen return, year after year, like the fish they chase.
The battle over this pristine piece of wilderness has been fierce, pitting two of Alaska's long-established extractive industries against each other: mining and fishing. Mining is a substantial force in Alaska's economyit supports 5,500 jobs and was worth $3 billion in 2008. Pebble promises up to 1,000 new jobs for an economically impoverished area, along with improved infrastructure and cheaper power. But the salmon run has been an integral part of the culture and subsistence lifestyle of the natives for millennia and is no small economic force itself: Bristol Bay's commercial fishery has been around for more than 120 years, employs about 10,000 people, and generates more than $300 million annually. Sportfishing attracts anglers from all over the world and is worth another $100 million a year.
The Pebble Partnershipthe corporation formed by Canada's Northern Dynasty and the UK-based Anglo Americanowns the mineral rights, giving it the authority to conduct the exploratory drilling and other tests needed to apply for mining permits. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources coordinates the permitting process, but the mine will require some 60 state and federal permits before development can proceed, and even then, the legislature or the governor could intervene. The companies plan to submit their permit materials in 2010, initiating a process that would take at least two years. If approved, Pebble would then enter a construction phase that could last from 2013 to 2015, with the mine possibly opening, at the earliest, in 2016, for what could be a 50-to-80-year life span.