The May smelt run on the Kuskokwim river heralds the arrival of king salmon and other traditional subsistence foods. There had been almost no studies on the small fish until Donlin Gold proposed building one of the biggest gold mines in the world in the Y-K Delta. The company says that the data they’re collecting will help determine how future barge traffic from the mine will impact the smelts, but residents who oppose the mine say that the study isn’t enough.
It happens every May. You get a text message or see a Facebook post that the smelts have arrived in Bethel, then you run down to the riverbank to fill your bucket with the small fish. You might fry them up later or feed them to your dog. It’s a big deal, because after the smelts come the king salmon.
Here’s Mary Matthias, the natural resource director at the Orutsararmiut Native Council in Bethel.
"With the recent harvest we caught some huge ones; they were like big, bigger than normal, and I teased my husband, 'look, we caught a steak,'" Matthias said.
Alaska is a fish state. Huge political battles take place over protecting salmon habitat, but smelt are different. There have not been a lot of studies done on smelt in the Kuskokwim River, which could be a problem, according to Dave Cannon, a retired fish biologist who lives in Aniak and opposes the mine.
One of the world’s biggest gold mines could be built not far from Aniak. Donlin Gold is trying to build the mine in a remote location in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, so it must barge supplies up the Kuskokwim River during the summer.
"Up until recently, we didn’t know a whole lot about them until 2014 and 2015 when there were some studies done. Pretty rigorous studies tied with the Donlin project," Cannon said.
But Cannon says that doesn’t mean the company has enough data to tell how an increase in barge traffic would impact the fish. He says that there need to be more studies, but collecting that data can be a challenge because the smelt run doesn’t last long .
"The fact they’re only here for a short period, if it was possible to document, you know, their numbers, their abundance, or their actual population levels, you’d have to focus real hard just for these couple of days," Cannon said.
Donlin Gold says that it’s aware of those problems, according to Kristina Woolston, the company’s spokesperson. She says Donlin had to start from scratch to study smelt habitat during the environmental review process.
"To our knowledge it’s never been done before. It’s not a project or program that’s funded by the state or federal government," Woolston said.
The Donlin studies have shown that waves from the barges can push the smelt eggs around. And if water levels in the river are very low, that exposes the eggs even more. This is a huge concern for people in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, who rely heavily on subsistence.
Donlin promises to use shallow barges, and monitor smelt habitat to keep collecting data.
"You have to start somewhere and by engaging in the smelt study, starting in 2014 we’ll have a number of years worth of data by the time the project gets into construction and starts barging," Woolston said.
Cannon and ONC’s Matthias think that the best solution is if Donlin ceases barge traffic during the time that it takes for smelt to spawn in the Kuskokwim, but it’s unknown if Donlin will go that far, Cannon says, especially since they have a small window to get supplies up to the mine by barge.