The Bristol Bay region of Southwest Alaska is home to the two largest sockeye salmon runs left in the world.
It’s also the site of the second largest combined deposit of copper, gold, and molybdenum ever discovered, worth more than $300 billion dollars.
Two mining companies want to get in on Bristol Bay.
Travis Rummel directed the documentary Red Gold, about the proposed Pebble Mine.
RUMMEL: Hey Ashley. Thanks for having me.
AHEARN: So, talk to me about this place. I’ve never been to Bristol Bay.
RUMMEL: It truly is a magical place. It’s a fully functioning ecosystem where the foundation is laid by salmon returning every year and supporting grizzly bears and bald eagles and an incredible rainbow trout fishery and it’s a wilderness, there’s no roads, there’s not a lot of people and the people that do live there live very much in harmony with the salmon resource that is kind of only found in Bristol Bay.
AHEARN: Tell me about these companies. Who are they and what are they after?
RUMMEL: They’re after what could be the largest discovery ever of gold and copper and molybdenum and they’re foreign companies the junior mining company Northern Dynasty is out of Vancouver and they were kind of the first to get up there and establish this plot and then they brought in Anglo-American, which is the second or third largest multi-national mining company in the world, and together they formed the Pebble Partnership and the Pebble Partnership has spent the last 5-6 years out there exploring it and they actually haven’t found the limits of the deposit yet. There’s wilderness. There’s no roads. There’s no power. And the project is huge. It would require as much power as the city of Anchorage and a huge pipeline and a 90 mile road and a deep sea port and they say they want to do it responsibly but when you look at the track record of this type of deposit of copper sulfide and the way of extracting it, which is an open pit, it doesn’t bode well.
AHEARN: One of the things I respected about the way you put together this documentary is that you really worked in the voices of mining companies and those are hard people to get to talk to you usually.
RUMMEL: Yeah, it’s important to us, even though we were hired by Trout Unlimited Alaska, which is advocating for no mining in Bristol Bay, it was really important to get both sides and really let the audience decide and present it unbiased to the audience and give them credit and make up their mind. And the mining company was gracious enough to get us on the mine site and talk to us and we tried to be as even as we could in providing them a platform to get their message out and kind of let the public decide what they value more: is it gold and copper or is it salmon? And in researching it, it’s really hard to have both, especially in a place like Bristol Bay.
The film was presented Monday in Seattle. Here’s where it’s going next:
Wednesday Oct. 19, 7 p.m. Baghdad Theater 3702 SE Hawthorne Blvd. Portland
Friday, Oct. 21, 7 p.m. The Arts Center 700 SW Madison Avenue Corvallis
AHEARN: Travis tell me about the production process. How long were you up there? How long were you in the field and how many hours of footage did you come back with?
RUMMEL: I have a co-director and my partner in filmmaking, Ben Knight, Ben and I and then Lauren Oakes from Trout Unlimited in Alaska spent 70 days in Bristol Bay and that was the time where salmon enter the system of Bristol Bay and then travel from salt water through freshwater rivers to their spawning grounds at the headwaters and we used the salmon’s migration as the thread to connect these different groups of people that all rely on salmon to help tell the story of salmon in Bristol Bay.
AHEARN: Tell me about those different people that you encounter along the salmon’s journey.
RUMMEL: Bristol Bay has a lot of characters. You kind of think of Alaska as the final frontier and you have to be kinda crazy to live there and there was certainly a lot of characters that you encounter. We started where the salt water meets the freshwater and that’s the traditional home of the commercial fishery, one of the largest on earth for salmon and they’re primarily fishing for sockeye salmon and we spent about two weeks with these commercial fishermen documenting them preparing for the upcoming season and the excitement that comes with knowing that millions and millions of fish are going to be returning in a matter of days.
View Bristol Bay, Alaska in a larger map
Then from the commercial fishery we moved upriver with the fish and next up was the subsistence fishermen and there’s an incredibly long connection for native American Alaskans subsisting off salmon so the fish are passing literally by their villages and they just put out a net and they’re able to harvest fish that will sustain them for the winter and spring until the salmon actually come back so this magical time when you have multiple generations of Yupik or Inuit or Athabascans down harvesting fish and prepping them for the winter, whether they’re canning them or smoking them or putting up fish and knowing that that will be their sustenance for the year.
And then from the native subsistence users we got to the sport fishermen, which are these, some kind of over-the-top lodges or remote lodges where people from all over the world will fly in or boat in just for the chance to catch a 32 inch rainbow trout that is thriving behind all these salmon and all these nutrients that the salmon are bringing from the ocean environment up to the headwaters of the rivers.
And ultimately we got up to where the proposed pebble mine site is and it’s literally at the top of the headwaters. It’s at the top of the Kvichak and Nushagak rivers, which are these huge systems within Bristol Bay. These two rivers account for tens of millions of fish and the mine site is literally on top of them. It’s hard to imagine a worse place for an open pit mine.
AHEARN: What was the biggest challenge in producing this documentary?
Local voters in Alaska this week narrowly approve a measure aimed at blocking the Pebble Mine project. Read more:
RUMMEL: It’s just always hard to show up to someplace that you’re not familiar with and gain familiarity with it. In a way you have to kind of fall in love with your subjects and share that passion and love with other people. I think to have had that experience and to have something that you love and share it with people is a kind of incredible journey on a personal level and it’s so rewarding when it ultimately works out and you can share it with people that may never have a chance to go to Bristol Bay but then to have them care about something that you care about.
AHEARN: Travis thanks so much.
RUMMEL: Thank you.
AHEARN: Travis Rummel is the director of Red Gold.
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