National Geographic : 2010 Dec
EDITOR'S NOTE PHOTO: MICHAEL MELFORD Setnet fishermen on Bristol Bay trap salmon when the fish swim close to shore with the incoming tide. From my vantage point in the single-engine plane above Bristol Bay, I see an epidemic of salmon fever as big as the state of Alaska. Hundreds of boats are in high gear, chasing the millions of ready-to-spawn sockeye returning to the bay, hauling in nets filled with fish. Many boats are so laden with salmon they ride precariously low in the water, dangerously close to swamping. I had heard about this fishery for years, but nothing prepared me for the enormity of it until I saw it for myself. I was also not prepared for its beauty and remoteness---no dams, develop- ment, or human footprint, just endless miles of pristine creeks, lakes, and rivers. This was the wild Alaska I had imagined. A tranquil landscape. Nature at its grandest. Today, nearly 28 years later, photographer Michael Melford and writer Edwin Dobb see the same breathtaking landscape and find the salmon still running. But the Bristol Bay watershed is no longer tranquil. Instead, it's filled with tension provoked by the discovery of what may be the world's largest deposit of gold and one of the largest deposits of copper. The lode, worth hundreds of billions of dollars, has spawned ambitions for an immense mining complex with an open pit possibly two miles wide and a cavernous underground mine. It's a face-off between salmon and gold; the battle between those who support the mine and those who oppose it has reached a critical point. The risk, the values and priorities, the balancing of potential gains and losses all present uneasy and complicated questions. In this month's issue Melford and Dobb wade into the fight.