Pebble backs lawsuit to halt Bristol Bay seafood association’s funding for anti-mine groups

Bristol Bay salmon. (KDLG photo)

Six Bristol Bay commercial fishermen are suing a regional seafood association they belong to, challenging over $250,000 in contracts it made with groups that advocate against the proposed Pebble Mine.

The Pebble Limited Partnership confirmed it is paying for the litigation.

The plaintiffs — Trefim Andrew, Tim Anelon, Gary Nielsen, Henry Olympic, Abe Williams and Braden Williams — are challenging the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association’s recent contracts with SalmonState and the United Tribes of Bristol Bay. Both SalmonState and UTBB are ardent Pebble opponents.

In their complaint, the plaintiffs allege the lawsuit is justified because BBRSDA can only use its funding to market seafood, based on the state statute that allowed for its creation.

BBRDSA leaders said they believe the lawsuit is designed to limit their participation in the ongoing federal public comment period for the proposed Pebble Mine.

“Consumers choose to pay more for wild sockeye salmon because it’s a healthy, abundant, premium wild salmon species from a pristine and unspoiled environment,” BBRSDA executive director Andy Wink said in a statement. “The Pebble Mine could jeopardize that, and at the very least we believe it’s important to engage in the permitting process so that if the mine does proceed, it’s built with adequate safeguards for fisherman, residents, and sockeye consumers.”

BBRDSA characterized its contracts with SalmonState and UTBB as funding for “educational efforts.”

Pebble Limited Partnership spokesperson Mike Heatwole said in an email it is backing the plaintiffs “as they have limited personal funds.”

“There were several fishermen that we’ve gotten to know over the years who were quite angered by the fact that the taxes they pay on their fish landings is not being use to market and promote the fish,” Heatwole said.

Abe Williams, one of the plaintiffs, commercial fishes in Bristol Bay and is also employed by the Pebble Limited Partnership as a regional outreach director. He used to be on the BBRDSA’s board.

“Over many years I’ve addressed these guys in regards to how they are utilizing our funds. There are many of us that said, ‘listen, this organization is doing something it wasn’t designed for,'” Williams said.

Most commercial fishermen in Bristol Bay are required to join BBRSDA. They pay a 1% tax on the fish they catch and sell, which funds the association.

Williams supports the Pebble Mine proposal, saying it would provide needed jobs in the Bristol Bay region. He said he’s proud to work there. But Williams said in participating in the lawsuit, he’s mainly acting in his interest as a fourth-generation commercial fisherman.

“My concerns about the BBRSDA spending the money the way they were was long before I was working at Pebble,” Williams said.

Williams and other plaintiffs are asking a judge to immediately prohibit BBRSDA from using its resources to impact the Pebble Mine permitting process.

Scott Kendall, the attorney representing BBRSDA, argued the contracts fall well within the realm of what the organization is supposed to do.

“It’s the number one issue that could impact the value and marketability and the sustainability of the fishery,” Kendall said. “How, if you are an organization whose sole purpose is to maintain the marketability and sustainability of the resource, do you ignore the Pebble Mine? It would seem to me to be almost absurd.”

Kendall noted the lawsuit was filed during the Army Corps of Engineers’ public comment period for Pebble’s latest mine proposal, which ends May 30.

“If successful, they would muzzle BBRSDA — BBRSDA would be denied the ability to create science and to create comments that would go into the comment period. It’s kind of a one-time shot, and on May 30, that expires,” Kendall said.

Pebble spokesperson Heatwole denied that charge, saying in his statement the lawsuit is not meant to challenge BBRSDA’s ability to comment on the mine.

“Their efforts can continue but it shouldn’t be done with fish marketing money,” Heatwole said.

Elizabeth Harball is a reporter with Alaska's Energy Desk, covering Alaska’s oil and gas industry and environmental policy. She is a contributor to the Energy Desk’s Midnight Oil podcast series. Before moving to Alaska in 2016, Harball worked at E&E News in Washington, D.C., where she covered federal and state climate change policy. Originally from Kalispell, Montana, Harball is a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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