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Last updated on April 19, 2014 at 9:20 EDT

Group Offers Oregon a Taste of Salmon Conservation

June 26, 2008

It’s not often you get invited to a tasting event for a species the organizers are looking to save.

But that’s what Trout Unlimited, a sportfishing advocacy group, and New Seasons Market cooked up this weekend at the grocery chain’s nine metro-area stores on behalf of Alaska’s Bristol Bay salmon.

The Bristol Bay salmon run, which encompasses five rivers in southwest Alaska, is far from endangered.

Indeed, as Oregon fishermen suffer through their second fisheries closure in three years, the Bristol Bay fishery is still one of the healthiest in the Pacific. Last year, fishermen harvested some 30 million fish from the region, accounting for nearly a third of Alaska’s harvest earnings.

The event’s organizers want to both market Bristol Bay wild salmon and head off a proposal by a Canadian company to locate one of the largest open pit gold and copper mines in North America at the headwaters of two river drainages feeding the bay.

The mine, they say, would divert water from three rivers, involve the construction of five dams or embankments and pose an unacceptable risk of contamination to spawning grounds.

To derail the project, organizers hope to establish a Bristol Bay brand akin to the frenzied loyalty that consumers seem to have for Alaska’s Copper River salmon.

“This is consumer-driven activism,” said Ben Blakey, a 26-year-old Bristol Bay fisherman and graduate of Lewis & Clark College. Blakey flew down for the weekend to help staff the event and was talking to customers at New Seasons on Northeast 33rd Avenue.

“We want people to buy it, eat it, enjoy it, and then want to maintain it,” Blakey said. “Mostly the goal is to get the name Bristol Bay and the Pebble Mine out there in front of consumers.”

Oregonians may prove a sympathetic audience after watching their fisheries devastated by decades of poor river management. The collapse of the fall chinook run on the Sacramento River led to the largest fisheries closure in West Coast history this spring. The Sacramento River run, long considered the most reliable on the West Coast, supplied 60 percent to 80 percent of the salmon caught off the Oregon Coast.

Oregon is now seeking $45 million in federal disaster aid for the closure, while California and Washington are seeking $208 million and $36 million, respectively. The Bush administration, meanwhile, has proposed taking $70 million from the $170 million that was approved in the farm bill as disaster relief for the Pacific Coast salmon fishing industry.

New Seasons held a similar awareness event last summer, gathering 600 signatures in opposition to the Pebble Mine. This year, the company expanded the program to all its Portland-area stores, offering small paper plates of previously frozen Bristol Bay sockeye and the chance to sign up for more information on the Pebble Mine campaign. The previously frozen salmon, from last year’s harvest, is selling for $9.99 a pound. Fresh fish will be available later this summer, likely at higher prices, New Seasons said.

Alan Moore, a resident of Northeast Portland who stopped to taste the fish and chat with Blakey while making his weekend grocery run, said he was in favor of the “Vote with your fork” campaign. Moore grew up on the Feather River, a tributary of the Sacramento River.

“This is a good way to improve awareness, as long as the fishery is sustainable,” Moore said. “Our salmon are a disaster because we destroyed the rivers.”