"We've got something special with the fish, but, you know, people have to live," she told me, working through the red flesh in front of her with a white-handled fillet knife. "We're not for the mine and we're not against it, but we are going to take advantage of this opportunity. Why shouldn't we? We got no jobs here, no money. It's a future for our young people."
In other native communities, I found people struggling with the same untenable tradeoff. "It costs a lot to live out here," a young woman in Igiugig told me. "It's beautiful, it means everything to us, but it's expensive." For many, though, the risks are just too great. "Look at this: You could take a cup right here and drink it," said Jack Hobson, president of the Tribal Council of Nondalton, an anti-Pebble village on the Newhalen River about a dozen miles from the mine site. "It's pristine, and the salmon will always be here. They're asking us to risk a lot for something that's only going to be around for 50 years."
For the sportfishermen and lodge owners, the issue is more clear-cut: The mine, as they see it, can only hurt them. One owner of a sportfishing lodge near the town of King Salmon, on the bay's south side, told me, "What we got going here is fucking magic. I'm astounded to even be a part of it. And I'm even more astounded that we might let something happen to jeopardize it."
TOWARD THE END of the season, I caught up with Bloom and the Erika Leigh in Ugashik, the westernmost Bristol Bay fishing district, where they were hoping for one last big slug of fish. I was on one of the large supply boats when the Erika Leigh motored up on our starboard side. The short season had taken its usual toll on Bloom. "We're in the black," she told me when I asked how the past two weeks had gone, "but we could really use one more big day."
She seemed tired but content. "In the black" meant that they'd gone over her 100,000-pound goal, though by how far she wasn't saying. Overall, the 2008 run totaled 40.4 million salmon, slightly above forecasts and above the 20-year average of 37 million. The total catch was 27.7 million sockeye, worth more than $113 million to the fishermen.
Since last summer, the global economic crisis has had an impact on the debate: Mining values in the state dropped from $4 billion in 2007 to $3 billion in 2008, with further declines expected in 2009. The Pebble deposit, which had been valued as high as $500 billion, is worth something like $230 billion now that mineral prices have fallen. The one bright spot is gold, which has gained in value as spooked investors have sought safe harbor from the instability of global markets. Still, Anglo American announced in February that it was laying off 19,000 employees and suspending its dividend. Spending at Pebble is down, but they are proceeding, with $59 million budgeted for 2009 to finish the research to apply for permits next year.
Until then, everything from the size of the mine to how quickly it will open is in flux, and will be, says Heatwole, the public-affairs VP. "There are a lot of questions we can't answer right now, which is a challenge," he concedes.
Both Pebble and the opposition are closely monitoring a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, expected to be decided by the end of June, which concerns the disposal of tailings in a lake near the Kensington gold mine, outside of Juneau. Meanwhile, the sniping continuesPebble has filed a complaint against the opposition alleging illegal funding, while native groups appealed to have Pebble's exploration permits revoked, citing lax state oversight. The state Senate Resources Committee called for an independent review of Pebble's potential impact by the National Academy of Sciences.