Life in Lindsay Layland’s hometown of Dillingham, Alaska, revolves around salmon.
The community is the hub of the Bristol Bay salmon fishery, the largest salmon run on Earth, and it’s safe to say that everyone in this part of Alaska has a connection to the salmon world. They fish for salmon and eat it. They run a commercial fishing operation, work for one, or are closely connected to someone who does. Or they’re tied to one of the scores of other businesses or entities—from B&Bs to schools to fuel companies—that rely on the return of salmon each spring. And even months after the rivers have emptied of spawners, salmon still seem to swim through town, as wooden cutouts painted by children and tacked up at public parks, on fence tops, and on the outside wall of the public library. In December, the annual elementary school holiday play features a salmon.
But for years now, Layland ’13 and others in her community have seen a direct threat to their salmon-centric way of life. For more than a decade, the Canadian company Northern Dynasty has been working to put a massive, open-pit copper and gold mine in the far reaches of Bristol Bay tributaries. The proposed Pebble Mine would be one of the largest in the world, developing a vast mineral deposit and, the company says, fostering industrial and economic activity in a region that has one of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in Alaska. But in this salmon world—a place dependent on this pristine watershed—the mine has hit stiff opposition. And the scale of the project and the potential environmental and economic impacts to the salmon fishery have spurred global controversy, which has been covered by The Seattle Times, The New York Times, The Guardian, and Al Jazeera, among others.
“No project of this size, this scale, or this magnitude has ever come to Bristol Bay,” Layland explains.
Dillingham is a remote community of about 2,000 people roughly 350 miles southwest of Anchorage. No roads lead to the town from the rest of the state—access is only by boat or plane—and the region remains largely undeveloped. “That’s why our way of life is so unique,” Layland says.
Layland is a commercial salmon fisherman. (Like many women in the industry, she uses the term “fisherman” with pride.) She has fished every summer of her life since she was a kid: Her parents bought a commercial salmon fishing permit in 1991, the year Lindsay was born, and Lindsay and her brother—two years her senior—grew up helping with the family fishing business. She remembers being out on the boat with the family, often in the middle of the night because of the tide, and telling her dad, “I’m not even tired!” before curling up in her rain gear at the stern of the boat and crashing out. When her parents handed over $20 for her salary at the end of the season, “I felt like I was being totally overpaid,” she says. And even though the family moved to Homer, a larger Alaska community on the highway system south of Anchorage, when Layland was in middle school, they returned each summer to Dillingham to fish.
Layland originally heard about the proposed mine when she was a teen, and remembers asking her father, “What’s Pebble?” At the time, she didn’t know the details of the project but quickly grasped its possible significance. “This would impact my career, my job, my course of life,” she remembers realizing at the time.
She was right. Since then, Layland has not only taken over the family fishing business—and grown it—she’s become a leading activist working with tribes and other people in the region’s fishing industry to fight the project. Layland is deputy director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, or UTBB, a tribal government consortium—formed largely in response to the proposed mine—that provides a unifed voice for the region’s Native peoples. The organization’s goal is to protect the traditional Yup’ik, Dena’ina, and Alutiiq ways of life in Southwest Alaska; the cultural groups are represented by 15 federally recognized tribes that make up 80% of the Bristol Bay region’s population.
Carrying out centuries-old subsistence traditions—picking berries, drying salmon, putting up moose meat—Native peoples around Bristol Bay rely on diverse natural resources. All of these resources, Layland says, “would be disrupted by a giant hole in the ground.”
UTBB’s executive director, Alannah Hurley, is Yup’ik and a fourth-generation commercial fisherman. She sees the proposed mine as a cultural threat. “This is a cultural rights issue, an indigenous rights issue, and a human rights issue at its core,” she says. “Any desecration of our watershed means the extinction of our people.” Hurley testified before Congress in October about the need for decision-makers to listen to Native peoples in the region. “We are not a box to be checked,” she told members of the House of Representatives.
Located in a wilderness of tundra, wetlands, and braided streams, Pebble would be a vast industrial development requiring a pit one mile wide and a quarter mile deep, and a 600-foot-tall earthen dam for storing mine wastes, as well as about 100 miles of roads, gas pipelines, and a large port facility—complete with jetty, power generators, fuel storage facilities, and employee housing—on what’s now a wild beach.
The proposed mine was nearly dead after the Environmental Protection Agency under the Obama administration found that the development of such a project was incompatible with fish, wildlife, and tribal life in the Bristol Bay region. But last June, citing the availability of new information, the EPA announced that it would consider the proposal again. Pebble is now in the permitting phase, and a final decision on whether the mine can be developed is expected before the end of President Trump’s first term.
At UTBB, Layland serves as the communication link between the Bristol Bay region’s more than two dozen remote communities and state and federal decision-makers. She visits villages regularly to update tribal members on the Pebble project and listen to their concerns. She relays these concerns to elected officials in Juneau and Washington, D.C., where she also educates legislators about the threats the development would pose to cultural values and ways of life, and advocates for tribal consultation during the permitting process. Layland also keeps the region’s residents updated on recent legal action—in which UTBB is a plaintiff—against the EPA, arguing that the agency broke the law when it reversed course with the project.
In the spring, thoughts of advocacy will get pushed aside as Layland gets ready for the opening of salmon season in June. There’s always a lot to do: fixing boats, replacing gill netting, gathering a season’s worth of supplies and spare parts, and orienting crew members. The commercial fishery in the region for red, or sockeye, salmon—by far the largest return of all five salmon species found in Bristol Bay—brought in 43 million fish last summer, generating more than $1 billion in economic activity and employing about one-third of the area’s working-age residents. Bristol Bay’s reds make up nearly half of the world’s total sockeye salmon population.
Come May, pretty much everyone around Dillingham is preparing for the annual salmon run. And within weeks, hordes of people come into town, following the fish. “It’s mayhem,” Layland says. For an hour every day after the once-daily Alaska Airlines 737 arrives from Anchorage, the tiny Dillingham airport is a chaotic swarm of commercial fishermen—in the typical getup of rubber boots, old sweats, and cotton hoodies; angler tourists—often in unblemished quick-dry travel clothing and toting rod cases; and cannery workers from as far away as Eastern Europe and South America—who will soon be sporting the uniform of Icicle Seafoods or Peter Pan (two of the primary seafood processors in the area).
Like her parents before her, Layland is a setnet fisherman, using 50-fathom-long nets anchored in shallow waters along the shoreline that ensnare salmon as they swim upstream. Setnetters harvest fish by hauling portions of these nets into bathtub-shaped skiffs, where they pick the tangled salmon out and drop them into fish holds or totes. Setnetting is the least mechanized form of commercial fishing in Alaska. It’s intensely physical work that demands strong backs, quick handiwork, and in-depth knowledge of ocean and river conditions.
Since taking over the family business six years ago, Layland has had a new, beefy skiff built to handle larger salmon hauls. She completed the wiring herself, so she’d know how to repair it. And she also bought a small cabin on the shore of the Nushagak River near her fishing sites, so she and her crew didn’t have to commute to the fishing grounds from Dillingham, half an hour away by skiff. The cabin sits in a seasonal settlement of simple plywood dwellings owned by other fishermen. Some of the other cabin owners are 20-somethings Layland grew up fishing alongside as a kid and who now, like her, are taking over for their parents. Some are raising their own children at fish camp, along that wild stretch of beach, with no roads, no stores, no power poles in sight. It’s a community, Layland explains. “When bad stuff happens,” like a skiff getting swamped or an engine failing, she says, “people band together.”
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Layland studied psychology at Puget Sound, where she was recruited to play basketball. Once on campus, she thought that she’d have to give up fishing for summer basketball leagues. “I told my dad I was done fishing,” she says. But she ended up returning to Dillingham each summer to work as a deckhand for her father in order to help pay for college. She was still able to play basketball, serving as team captain for two years. And although she intended to pursue a career in elementary education, as her mother had, she realized that what she really wanted to do was fish.
Once the fishing season begins in mid-June, Layland explains, “You live or die by the tides.” Bristol Bay experiences some of the most extreme tides in the world, flushing three stories of water in and out of this relatively shallow inlet, flooding hundreds of miles of coastline, and making rivers run backwards. During the most extreme tides of the month, the water can drop or rise three feet per hour. The tides dictate when Layland and her crew anchor, set, and pick their nets.
While habitat destruction, damming, and pollution have destroyed most of the world’s salmon runs, in Bristol Bay, salmon have thrived because this Ohio-sized ecosystem—from the wetlands and tiny streams where fish are born to the tributaries and wide rivers they use to head downstream to the sea—is largely intact and undeveloped. These wild salmon are an essential part of the ecology of the region, bringing the nutrients of the ocean far inland, where their rotting bodies feed the landscape, ending up in the tissues of brown bears, eagles, and wildflowers.
In mining some 70 million ounces of gold and 70 billion pounds of copper, along with other minerals, Northern Dynasty has said it could bring up to 2,000 jobs and needed economic development to the region. The facility would operate 24 hours a day, 365 days per year, unearthing gold—primarily used in electronics and jewelry—and copper, an essential element in modern construction and electronics.
But the majority of Bristol Bay residents believe that such industrial development cannot coexist with a healthy salmon fishery: Recent polls show that three-quarters of Bristol Bay residents—and 65% of Alaskans—oppose the mine. Besides being worried about the potential for extensive damage to the habitat on which the region’s salmon depend, they’re concerned that toxic mine tailings would end up in the watershed, despite Northern Dynasty’s assurances that the development won’t harm the fishery.
At UTBB, Layland is a white woman representing Native tribes. But, she explains, “I’ve never felt like an outsider.” That’s at least partly because she grew up in the region, she says. And she shares values and a livelihood with the people around her. Like Layland and Hurley, various board members of the organization also work in the fishing industry. They understand Layland’s need to be out of the office and unreachable for nearly two months of the year. Likewise, when a staff member wants to take time off to go on a moose hunt, the answer from higher up is always yes, Layland says.
Many friends balked when Layland, then 24, told them her plans to move back to this tiny, remote community where the hot Friday-night event might be a youth wrestling tournament in the school gym. But Layland is continuing to dig into this place. She serves as coach of the high school women’s varsity basketball team. She and her players travel by small bush plane to compete with teams at other schools. And Layland is building a house in Dillingham with help from her dad.
Salmon fishing continues to bring her family together. Her brother, who now lives in Arizona, comes up every summer to work with Layland as a skiff captain. Her parents return to Dillingham each summer, as well, from Homer. During the fishing season, they serve as land support for Layland and her crew, and put up a year’s worth of salmon for themselves—and, if she’s lucky, Layland says, for her, too.
What it means to be a commercial fisherman is a hard thing for many people to grasp, including those at the other end of the supply chain, where salmon ends up on a dinner plate thousands of miles from Bristol Bay. Some people assume that commercial fishing is a quick way to make a bunch of cash. But, Layland explains, there’s a tremendous amount of behind-the-scenes work to plan and prepare for each fishing season, complicated by the tricky logistics of getting supplies to the Alaska bush. In the fall Layland must ensure that the gear and goods she needs for the following fishing season, like a new engine, new power rollers, or bulk food, are on a barge that will arrive in Dillingham the next spring.
And even with adequate preparation, there’s never a guarantee that she’ll catch fish. The Bristol Bay salmon fishery, like any natural system, experiences year-to-year variability that can be extreme. And as the bay and its tributaries warm with climate change, new uncertainties are on the horizon, too. “That’s a really, really scary issue for us,” Layland explains. Salmon are highly sensitive to temperature fluctuations, and last summer, some of the bay’s tributaries ran too warm for fish, blocking their passage to upstream spawning grounds and leaving thousands of salmon dead on riverbanks.
Another thing many outsiders overlook, Layland says, is the connection fishermen have with the resource on which their livelihoods are based. This relationship is about a lot more than money. Salmon have helped Layland create a sense of community in her life, helped her recognize her own limits and then push beyond them, and helped her find kinship with people in the fishing industry worldwide. The highlight of a post-college trip to Croatia, Layland says, was watching Croatian fishermen cast hand nets in the Adriatic Sea. On top of that, salmon have “created for me a pretty profound respect for our natural world,” she says.
Layland describes her home as “one of the last great wild places” on Earth. If the Pebble Mine were developed, “the image of the region would go from fish production to mineral production,” she says. “And if an accident were to happen …”—her voice trails off for a moment—“there goes my tradition, my history, my childhood.” In the months ahead, the proposed project faces numerous legal challenges as the world waits for a final decision from the Army Corps of Engineers on whether the mine can be developed. But Layland is not waiting. She’s working, and speaking up, and—in a few months—preparing for another fishing season.