TOM DIMAGGIO IS 96 YEARS OLD AND BLESSED WITH A FULL HEAD OF NEATLY COMBED WHITE HAIR AND A WARM HANDSHAKE. A fisherman for his whole career, he’s been retired for over 20 years and remains a vibrant member of the fishing community – only these days, the community is far from the dock and instead gathers at the East Village Coffee Lounge in Monterey to while away weekday mornings, sipping espresso and swapping stories.
Some of DiMaggio’s buddies still fish part-time and others are retired, but most of them have spent at least a few summers in Alaska, fishing for salmon in Bristol Bay. DiMaggio himself notched 50 seasons, enduring his fair share of ups and downs. His first year, 1949, was spent on a sailboat; he says upgrading to a diesel-powered engine didn’t make much of a difference.
“The fish are seasonal,” DiMaggio says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a sailboat or a motorboat. If the fish don’t come in, you don’t catch them.”
Commercial fishing is an unpredictable profession in many ways, though the two greatest uncertainties are how many fish are caught and how much those fish sell for. The nature of the job means many fishermen want to surround themselves with a crew they can trust, which often means family.
Ask the East Village table of old-school fishermen how they got started, and they all have a similar answer: They were brought fishing by their father, uncle, grandfather or another relative. Many of them took over the permit upon that relative’s retirement, and they plan to do the same, passing their permit down the family line.
“It’s rare to sell your permit to someone you don’t know,” says Peter Guerra, a 42-season veteran of Bristol Bay and longtime Monterey Bay fisherman whose son, John, now fishes with his permit.
Fishing is an expensive profession. While boat costs vary, a vessel capable of weathering the elements and catching enough salmon is likely upward of $200,000. Newer, better-equipped boats can cost close to $1 million. Currently, permits to fish sockeye in Bristol Bay run about $175,000 (a one-time purchase that can be transferred without cost), making it a significant investment for fishermen looking to get started. Many of these fishermen pass their boats, nets and way of life on to family, as well.
Mario Pennisi, who’s fished in Alaska’s Bristol Bay for 34 seasons and works in construction in Monterey for the rest of the year, has a way to describe life as a fisherman for the uninitiated: “Go take a cold shower while tearing up hundred-dollar bills.”
“If God was a sockeye salmon, Bristol Bay is what he would design”
Most of the vast area known as Bristol Bay is rolling tundra, dotted with a complex system of lakes, ponds, rivers and streams. In some places, mountains dot the horizon, but few fishermen spend the summer months in Bristol Bay for the scenery – the rich river system and extreme tidal exchanges come with weather that can be cold, rainy and unforgiving. It’s the ecological diversity and abundance of salmon that bring thousands of commercial fishermen to the region for the annual sockeye salmon harvest.
“If God was a sockeye salmon, Bristol Bay is what he would design,” says Greg Buck, a fishery biologist in Bristol Bay for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “It’s perfect – the rivers and lakes – it’s got the exact mix. The watershed is gigantic and it’s slow-moving, with no waterfalls and no fish blockage. It’s what you would design if you wanted a habitat that was to maximize sockeye production.”
Last summer saw a record 62.3 million sockeye salmon returning to the six rivers of the Bristol Bay watershed to spawn, and over 2,800 permit-holders from all over the U.S. (including 30 from the Monterey Bay area) descending upon the region. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game reports the sockeye run was valued at approximately $275 million in 2018.
While sockeye salmon spend most of their lives in saltwater, they are born in freshwater rivers and streams before making their way downriver and out into the ocean. Most sockeye spend about two years out at sea – where very little is known about their behavior – before returning to the very same rivers and streams where they were born to lay their eggs.
In some cases, salmon face natural barriers when returning upstream, such as waterfalls or rushing rapids. With no such challenges at Bristol Bay, a high percentage of salmon can return to spawn, ensuring a thriving population – and lots of fish for fishermen.
This naturally pristine habitat is one of the two factors that make Bristol Bay unique; the other is that it has been left that way by humans.
Many rivers, including the Sacramento River and the Columbia River, have seen their salmon runs decrease or disappear altogether due hydropower dams, hatcheries and habitat destruction. “Around Bristol Bay, the only human impact is essentially harvest,” Buck says.
Still, there are good years and bad years – 2018’s sockeye run was 69-percent higher than the 20-year average, and the highest since 1893 – but on the whole, Bristol Bay remains one of the last reliable refuges for wild-caught salmon in the world.
“I’ve never seen it really bad,” says Sammy Mercurio, co-owner of Domenico’s on the Wharf in Monterey and a 41-season veteran of Bristol Bay who serves the salmon he catches at his restaurant. “We’ve always done OK. There’s been good and bad. But I’ve never really seen it disastrous.”
But a proposed mine site now working its way through the permitting process means that this $275 million a year industry is facing its biggest threat ever – with big implications for the Monterey Bay fishermen who have been fishing in Bristol Bay for generations.
“SENT FROM MY IPHONE. CREATED FROM 62 MINED MATERIALS INCLUDING COPPER – apologies for typos but not for the facts,” reads the email signature from Mike Heatwole, vice president of public affairs for the Pebble Partnership. Copper is a valuable mineral, essential not only to consumer electronics but to electricity production, motor vehicles and construction projects.
It’s also found in rich abundance 100 miles from Bristol Bay, in an underground store known as the Pebble Deposit, along with smaller amounts of gold and molybdenum.
The Pebble Partnership seeks to dig a large, open-pit mine to extract these minerals from the Pebble Deposit and transport them over a proposed 83-mile transportation corridor to a port on the Cook Inlet, where they’d board transport ships. The waste rock, known as mine tailings, would be discarded into large reservoirs called tailings storage facilities. If approved, this will continue for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for the next 20 years – at which point the Pebble Partnership will reassess whether it’s worth applying for additional permitting to continue mining operations.
Opponents of the Pebble Partnership are concerned with the impact that the mine’s footprint will have on the salmon habitat, and are most concerned with the tailings storage. They point to the Mount Polley disaster, a 2014 incident in British Columbia where a tailings reservoir from a copper and gold mine breached the dam holding it in place. Water and slurry from years of tailings overflowed into nearby Lake Polley, elevating toxin levels.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Pebble Deposit “is located in the headwaters of tributaries to both the Nushagak and Kvichak Rivers,” two rivers which together comprise about 50 percent of the Bristol Bay watershed. Fishermen fear a similar accident could happen at the Pebble Deposit, presenting an unprecedented threat to Bristol Bay’s sockeye salmon population by polluting the interconnected waterways.
Heatwole stresses that Pebble has taken measures to guard against such accidents, including “adding extra stability for tailings embankments, increasing the angle of the face [of the dam], and not using [tailings storage facility] for water storage.”
Fishermen have always accepted a certain degree of risk. But the salmon are certain. A renewable resource, they will keep returning to spawn. Yet Bristol Bay fishermen, including those from Monterey Bay, see the presence of the Pebble Mine – which seeks to extract a non-renewable resource – as a threat to their industry because it has the potential to alter these natural cycles in a fundamental way that will not balance out in the end.
“I’m not a scientist, but if you disturb the bottom of the ocean where they spawn, maybe you’ll screw it up,” Mercurio says. “You ever thought about that?”
“I’m not a scientist, but if you disturb the bottom of the ocean where they spawn, maybe you’ll screw it up”
Fishermen may not be scientists, but lots of scientists have thought about the issue. A 2014 peer-reviewed study conducted by the EPA, known as the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment, determined that “the infrastructure necessary to mine the Pebble Deposit jeopardizes the long-term health and sustainability of the Bristol Bay ecosystem.”
Heatwole dismisses results of the EPA’s study.
“The Partnership has a lot of issues with the process the EPA followed with the watershed assessment, and we do not accept it as a conclusive document,” he says. “Everything that we learned going on behind the scenes was that they had a conclusion, and were looking for a report to back it up. The EPA was looking for a way to preemptively block a project before it goes into permitting.”
There are two entrenched interest groups on either side of this issue: fishermen who depend on the profitable Bristol Bay fishery for their livelihoods, versus the Pebble Partnership.
While the Pebble Partnership has not released data on the projected value of a 20-year mining operation, the EPA estimates that “a mine at the Pebble deposit could ultimately generate revenues between $300 billion and $500 billion.”
One number the Pebble Partnership – which is fully owned by a Canadian company, Northern Dynasty Minerals, Ltd. – has been willing to release is $150 million. That’s the amount they’ve spent on 10 years of study.
Heatwole notes they’ve modified the proposal based on concerns from environmental activists and fishermen, pursuing a mine with a smaller footprint, and eliminating secondary reconversions (a process that uses cyanide to further extract gold from the rock deposits). “We want to be able to confidently say this project can coexist with a fishery,” Heatwole says.
In December 2017, Pebble submitted an application for an environmental impact statement. A draft is scheduled to be released by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Feb. 22, when a 90-day public comment period will begin. Army Corps officials will incorporate those comments, then are expected to release a final environmental impact statement in early 2020.
That timeline might sound long, but in the context of environmental permitting, it’s fast. The quick turnaround for a record of decision is spurred by the Trump administration’s “One Federal Decision” executive order, compelling federal agencies responsible for issuing permits to do so within two years. Estimates vary, but most in opposition to the Pebble Partnership agree that an EIS for a project of this magnitude would normally take around five years.
MARCH 24, 1989 WAS THE DAY AN OIL TANKER CALLED EXXON VALDEZ HIT A REEF IN PRINCE WILLIAM SOUND and spilled 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into the surrounding waters. The spill affected not just marine life, but fishermen as well. Despite being 400 aerial miles away from Prince William Sound, untouched physically by the spill, Bristol Bay fishermen saw a dramatic decrease in the price of salmon. Their product, Alaskan sockeye, was seen as tainted, and the price dropped from more than $2/pound in 1988 to around $1.25/pound in 1989.
“The Japanese were the main market at the time, and they were worried about oil in the fish,” Mercurio recalls.
Melanie Brown is a 40-season veteran of Bristol Bay and an organizer for Salmon State, a nonprofit with a mission to make sure Alaska retains its profitable salmon industry. She says the specter of environmental or health risk can have negative consequences for prices. “Most fish are exported to Asia, and all they have to go off of are broader strokes of perceived quality,” Brown says. “If they hear of an unnatural disaster, they are going to paint all of the Alaskan salmon with that broad brush. It’s an excuse to command a lower price.”
It’s price that Guerra worries about too. “I’m scared for the future,” he says. “Put the mine in, and it will eventually destroy the fishery.”
Monterey Bay fishermen aren’t idling by drinking coffee at East Village as the permitting process proceeds. In January, the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, a trade group that markets Bristol Bay fish, held a meeting at the Intercontinental Hotel in Monterey to educate local fishermen about the threat the proposed Pebble Mine poses.
Their goal is to mobilize fishermen to speak up during the period of public comment that opens on Feb. 22, which many of them say they now plan to do.
“If I had to go see the president, I’d do it right now,” Mercurio says. “I’d tell him, Mr. President, what would you rather do? Help a corporation that will take the money and run, or protect the sockeye fishery that’s going to go on for our kids and grandkids?”
"…Mr. President, what would you rather do? Help a corporation that will take the money and run, or protect the sockeye fishery that’s going to go on for our kids and grandkids?”
In the early 1900s, king salmon used to run in great abundance up both the Carmel and Salinas Rivers, according to local historian Tim Thomas, a one-time curator of the former Monterey History and Maritime Museum. The fish were so plentiful that competitions known as salmon derbies were held each summer, with the winner taking home a cash prize for the biggest fish – and a refrigerator for his wife.
It’s been 80 years since there’s been robust commercial salmon fishing in Monterey Bay, which is indicative of the decline of California fisheries as a whole. According to a database compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, from 1950 to 1999, commercial fishermen in California caught an average of 806 million pounds of fish per year. Since 2000, that figure has been about 378 million pounds.
Mercurio used to fish full-time. Summers were spent in Bristol Bay catching sockeye salmon, and the rest of the year was spent fishing for anchovies, sardines, squid and herring in Monterey Bay. He sold out 14 years ago to run Domenico’s full-time, and now only fishes the summer sockeye run.
“I didn’t like the politics of California,” Mercurio says. “The difference between California and Alaska is that in Alaska, the fish come first.”
He’s not alone. Many see California as a difficult place to make a living as a commercial fisherman, and a harder place to pass on their livelihood to the next generation. Both Mercurio and Guerra have passed their Bristol Bay permits on to sons who will continue to fish in Alaska, but have pursued other careers in Monterey. Mercurio’s son works as a contractor, and Guerra’s son works as an electrician.
John Aliotti has fished for sockeye salmon for 36 seasons in Bristol Bay. He’s joined by three of his sons for Bristol Bay summers, one of whom, Johnny, fishes with him year-round.
The rest of the year, he fishes for prawns in Monterey Bay, making him one of a shrinking group who make their living year-round as fishermen.
He was once in their shoes, learning to fish with his father. “It’s tough to fish with your father,” he says. “You get yelled at a lot, but it’s all love. I could see where I was driving my dad crazy because now my sons are driving me crazy. But again, it’s all love.”
But he knows there’s more than love and grit to the business of fishing. The human impact adds to the uncertainty.
“We’ve heard about the Pebble Mine project for years,” he says. “I’m not sure how much longer I have [fishing], but if something goes wrong, it’ll destroy the whole fishery.”
For Aliotti and other Monterey Bay fishermen, the Pebble Mine poses a threat to not only the last great sockeye salmon run in the world, but to an entire way of life.