President Obama recently traveled to Alaska to highlight the impacts of climate change from the front lines of this global challenge. Throughout his trip, the president spoke passionately about the issue and brought much needed attention to the impacts climate change is bringing first to the Arctic. The president also made history by visiting rural Alaska – flying out of Anchorage to the communities of Dillingham in the Bristol Bay region and to Kotzebue above the Arctic Circle.

Dillingham, also known as salmon country, gave the president a very enthusiastic welcome. For his part, the president was particularly at ease, picking salmon from a subsistence set-net and skillfully joining a group of children during their performance of a traditional Yup’ik dance. He even cracked a smile and joked after a salmon, freshly pulled from a subsistence set-net, released its milt onto his shoe, saying “…he was happy to see me.”

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The warm relationship between the people of Bristol Bay and Obama stems from the tangible actions he has taken during his presidency to sustain and protect Bristol Bay’s fisheries, which are, in his words, “one of the most important natural resources the United States has.” Last year, Obama put Bristol Bay’s outer continental shelf off-limits for oil and gas lease sales, and his Administration took preliminary steps under the Clean Water Act to protect the region from large-scale mining development of the Pebble deposit. Both moves received strong praise across Bristol Bay.

Furthermore, during his time in Alaska, the president made clear his commitment to Bristol Bay’s future, saying “I’ll continue to support efforts to protect this community as long as I’m president.” In addition to continuing forward with finalizing baseline conditions on any effort to mine the Pebble deposit, the president can assuage our cultural, subsistence and economic-based fears about the proposed mine by instituting a Fish First priority that puts the health of our salmon fisheries at the forefront of any federal development decisions in our region.

For millennia, the people of Bristol Bay have thrived by putting salmon first, and the reason is simple: salmon are our lifeblood. Salmon are the centerpiece of a vibrant and complex ecosystem that provides our region with food and a cultural identity, and supports a $1.5 billion fishing industry – an industry not only important to Alaska, but to the thousands of fishermen in the Lower 48 whose livelihoods depend on Bristol Bay. The salmon in Bristol Bay also matter to the millions around the world who enjoy wild sockeye from a region that produces 40 percent of the global supply.

Unfortunately, all of this would be put at risk if the Pebble Mine were to be built at the headwaters of the Nushagak and Kvichak River drainages, two of the region’s most important river systems that produce tens of millions of salmon every year. What could be North America’s largest open pit mine, and its 10 billion tons plus of waste rock with the potential to leach metals and produce acid mine drainage, does not belong in Bristol Bay.

An appropriate follow up to his historic trip would be the formal recognition of the importance of salmon to the region by way of an executive action that directs all federal agencies to prioritize the health and productivity of Bristol Bay’s fisheries when they act within our region. Putting Fish First in Bristol Bay will ensure that our fisheries continue in perpetuity to be one of the most important natural resources of the nation.

We look forward to Obama’s next promised visit, when he is no longer in office and can stay as long as he likes. We are confident that, given his actions, Bristol Bay will be then, as it is now, rich in salmon, people and communities. As we like to say, “A Place That’s Always Been.” 

Anderson is the president and CEO of Bristol Bay Native Association; Van Vactor is the president and CEO of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation; and Metrokin is the president and CEO of Bristol Bay Native Corporation.