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Rochester photographer lends hand for salmon battle

Michael Melford's work in Alaska has helped an environmental effort to preserve the headwaters of Bristol Bay in Alaska.

Salmon TV.jpg
Michael Melford of rural Rochester, speaks earlier this year at a meeting of the local chapter of Trout Unlimited. Melford photographed Bristol Bay, Alaska, and its fishery in 2009 for National Geographic in 2010. The fish he’s showing are sockeye salmon that are thriving in that part of Alaska, but he fears a proposed mine in the bay’s watershed would severely damage the fishery.
Contributed / Michael Melford
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A decade-long effort to protect the massive sockeye salmon and trout fishery in Bristol Bay, Alaska, from the proposed giant copper-gold-molybdenum Pebble Mine leaped forward Dec.1 when the US Environmental Protection Agency took the third of four major steps to stop it.

Michael Melford was thrilled.

Though the bay southwest of Anchorage, Alaska, is about 2,250 miles from his home in rural Rochester, it and all of Alaska, are dear to him because he has been there so often. More importantly, he can take some credit for his part in what conservation groups are calling a giant victory.

Melford was one of the people to bring the threat to the fishery to the nation’s attention when he photographed a 2010 National Geographic story on the beauty of the bay and its fishery as well as the threat from the proposed mine.

“If something good happens, we always like to think we had some part in that,” he said. “I’m just thrilled that it may finally happen, that we value a sustainable fishery and the environment over money.”

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Yet he cautioned that the EPA still needs to take the fourth step, probably within two months. “The final nail is not in the coffin yet and so, (while) I’m thrilled that we’re heading in that direction, but I have the feeling we have been here before.” The groups thought they had the Clean Water Act protection but the Trump Administration rejected it, Melford said.

Salmon kissing.jpg
Ina Bouker kisses one of the fish caught in Bristol Bay, Alaska. The picture was shot in 2009 as part of a shoot for National Geographic. Native Americans have been catching the salmon and trout for millennia.
Contributed / Michael Melford

Mine vs. the sockeye

The proposed Pebble Mine would be in the watershed of several rivers leading into the bay southwest of Anchorage, he said. That bay is where mature sockeye salmon by the tens of millions (a record 78 million this year) come in from the ocean annually to go up rivers and creeks to spawn, then die. Other kinds of salmon as well as some trout also use the bay and its watershed. Native Americans, sport anglers and commercial fishermen rely heavily on the fish.

Trout Unlimited, the nation’s largest cold-water fisheries conservation organization with about 300,000 members, also rejoiced because the decision determined “that dumping mine waste in Bristol Bay’s headwaters would harm globally significant runs of sockeye salmon, setting the stage for the region to receive important Clean Water Act protections.”

Saving Bristol Bay “has been a major focus for Trout Unlimited for at least the past decade,”said Kirk Deeter, editor-in-chief of TU’s magazine.

“I think the media attention was key to keeping the issue front and center for the many different constituents, with different interests, engaged in the fight,” he said. “The mine backers may have planned to outspend and outlast those who opposed Pebble. But we never stopped paying attention. And we won’t. … It was a David and Goliath story from the onset.”

Environmental win

Besides being an environmental victory for the bay, it also shows that the environment can win such disputes. “I think this is one of the benchmarks for protecting a wild fishery,” he said.

In announcing its decision, the EPA stated it found potential discharges from the mine “would be likely to result in unacceptable adverse effects on salmon fishery areas in the South Fork Koktuli River, North Fork Koktuli River, and Upper Talarik Creek watersheds of Bristol Bay.

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“This action would help protect salmon fishery areas that support world-class commercial and recreational fisheries and that have sustained Alaska Native communities for thousands of years, supporting a subsistence-based way of life for one of the last intact wild salmon-based cultures in the world,” it further stated.

Not everyone was thrilled. Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy was upset and on his web page wrote: “If finalized, this action sets a dangerous precedent. It vetoes a permit that has not been issued and imposes a blanket prohibition on development over 309 square miles of Alaska-owned land. Alarmingly, it lays the foundation to stop any development project, mining or nonmining, in any area of Alaska with wetlands and fish-bearing streams.

“The State of Alaska has the duty, under our constitution, to develop its resources to the maximum in order to provide for itself and its people, so it’s important that any and all opportunities be explored in furtherance of this idea,” he wrote. “This sets a very troubling precedent for the State and the country. If this goes unchallenged, this issue will become precedent-setting, potentially for other states as well.

Media presence

Melford, who has shot 18 assignments for National Geographic, said he at first proposed to do a landscape story about Bristol Bay in 2009 but his bosses said, “No, there is something more interesting going on.” He was told to go and see what’s happening. “Those were my marching orders,” he said.

What he saw was massive salmon runs well managed so the runs could continue. That made this assignment special. “From the first day I got emotionally involved,” he said. At first, he had mixed feelings about how he should regard the assignment. Journalists are supposed to try to show both sides of the story but he’s also a conservationist. Trying to be both “was very difficult for me,” he said.

But then Melford said he talked with members of the three groups — Native Americans, commercial fishing and sport fishing — relying on the salmon and, while they often disagreed on many issues, they agreed on Bristol Bay. “It was unusual that these three groups … joined together (over) this mine,” he said. “For me to take a side was not difficult at all.”

Even his editor agreed the magazine had to take a stand, he said. “The editor said we only have one chance to stop this and we have to show what’s at stake,” he said.

Besides the National Geographic photos, he said he has also spoken out across the nation about the threat. This fall, he spoke to the local chapter of Trout Unlimited.

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Half the world’s salmon come from Bristol Bay, he said at the meeting. The fish come in with the tide in July, are netted or sometimes caught by sport anglers, he said.

“They are all cookie cutters, they are almost all the same size,” Melford said, each around 10 to 12 pounds. They are netted in smaller ships, processed in bigger ones and quickly flash frozen, then taken around the world. Natives also net the fish as they have done for millennia, drying them as they have for millennia.

Being neutral doesn’t come naturally to him. “I have always had an opinion on my stories" that tend to focus on how beautiful the planet is, he said.

In his talks, Melford tries to show the fishery and how great it is, as well as where the threat would come from if the mine was allowed to be built. Besides the actual mining, there would be tailings pond that could leach sulfuric acid and arsenic into the porous rocks there. Those pollutants could do massive damage to salmon that come up from the ocean and somehow find the very waters where their lives began as eggs and repeat the process.

A similar mine in Butte, Mont., left the area with the largest Superfund site in the country, he said.

Bringing his bias

Melford said he grew up north of New York City with woods in his backyard.

“I was always there looking for salamanders, for tadpoles,” he said. In college, he tried to get into the Syracuse Journalism School but his views on journalism neutrality came out. The professor asked him about it and, “I said I didn’t think anybody could be objective … the professor said, sorry we can’t let you into the journalism school.”

He ended up at National Geographic where he traveled the world, documenting its beauty, including three books on Alaska. He ended up in Rochester after meeting his future wife, Dr. Lynn Cornell.

His newest passion is fishing and helping the trout streams in this region. Also, he and his wife are very active in the effort to save a great blue heron rookery near their home.

Related Topics: ROCHESTERENVIRONMENTART
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