Save the Seals!

Lake Iliamna

Some of my colleagues have blogged about our petition opposing plans for a massive gold and copper mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed.  Well, here’s another reason to sign. 

Seals.  But not just any seals.

We generally think of seals as ocean-going mammals, but in a few unique and remote spots on earth, seals have taken up residence in freshwater lakes.  One of these spots – the only one in the U.S. – is Lake Iliamna, an enormous pristine lake in the wilderness northeast of Bristol Bay.  A small population of harbor seals lives in Iliamna year-round where it thrives on fish from one of the last great intact sockeye salmon runs on the planet.

Not very much is known about these seals, except that their lifestyle is highly unusual and that there are not very many of them.  The National Marine Fisheries Service is conducting studies to determine if they’re on a different evolutionary trajectory from their saltwater kin.  One recent aerial survey counted some 235 individuals, suggesting the population is very small and vulnerable to disturbance.  The seals are able to reside year-round in Iliamna, Alaska’s largest lake, because of the abundance of salmon and other freshwater fish, and the presence of sheltered haul-out sites on the lake’s spits and green islands.

By any measure – the seals, the salmon, the great unspoiled beauty of the place – this is wilderness worth conserving as part of our natural heritage.  But Lake Iliamna has the misfortune of lying directly downstream of the site of the proposed Pebble Mine.  

My colleagues have written about what a horrifically bad idea it would be to put a mine of such enormous scale, with its huge open pit, its network of toxic lakes, and one of the country’s largest dams, in this magnificent watershed.  If built, the mine is also likely to inflict irreparable damage on Lake Iliamna and its wildlife.  Byproducts from mining, including copper dust highly toxic to salmon, would inevitably end up contaminating the lake; and trucks would rumble back and forth on new grades that the company would strike near the lakeshore, en route to Bristol Bay.

Many mysteries about the seals of Lake Iliamna remain unsolved.  When and how did they arrive?  How have they adapted to their freshwater environment?  How do they persist in winter, when much of the lake is frozen over?  If the unique habitat that sustains the seals is destroyed, we may never know.

NRDC is planning to deliver a petition to the British mining giant Anglo-American, at its annual shareholder meeting next month, opposing Pebble Mine.  Please take a minute to add your name.