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The Herring, the Whale and the Mining ExecutiveShannon Kelly Donahue

Shannon Kelly Donahue
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The herring came in on Tuesday, pulsing into Mud Bay with the tide, heralded by flocks of gulls and roaring sea lions. The run occurs in a flash, like their iridescent bodies catching sunlight as the school shifts in unison to evade a predator. Herring run when the water temperature is just right. Females seek the shelter of eelgrass to lay their eggs. Males follow and fertilize, leaving milky blankets of milt to settle and create more life, more herring. The herring bring the first real pulse of spring to Southeast Alaska, a few weeks after the birch sap starts running, but before the alders burst their brilliant green along the shorelines. Years ago, herring ran all along this coast. Mining impacts, coastal development, and warming ocean temperatures threaten the last runs of Lynn Canal herring.

The road to town follows Chilkat Inlet, across the peninsula from Mud Bay. When the herring arrive, we know the saak — the Lingít name for an oil-rich smelt that’s also known as eulachon or candlefish — will soon flood Chilkat and Chilkoot Inlets, swarming both sides of the peninsula to spawn in the rivers. When the saak arrive, it’s on: hundreds of thousands of gulls form perpetual murmurations over the water, diving for silvery slithers of protein. Otters patrol riverbanks, sea lions splash, and humpback and orca whales follow, scooping fish by the mouthful.

I drive slowly, scanning Chilkat Inlet for sea life. A spout emerges from the water, and I pull over. I kill the engine and roll my window down. For the first time this year, the sun is strong enough to warm my face. I am taking a break from analyzing hard-rock mine permitting documents. I need this sunshine, this sea air, this pulse of life that brings the raucous change of seasons after winter’s chilly stillness.

The bellows-sound of whale breath cuts through the cacophony of gulls. The smooth, arched back of a humpback whale breaks the glassy surface, the small triangle of her dorsal fin cutting through the water as she submerges again, following the first saak — the scouts of the species — toward the river mouth. Beside her, a smaller version — her calf — mimics her, experiencing spring in Chilkat Inlet for the first time, learning to navigate the waters, to follow the fish, to avoid entanglement in fishing nets. The whales seem to bask in the stillness of the Chilkat estuary. I remember working for the Chilkoot Tribe on their saak survey a few years ago and being instructed not to capture these first fish — they are vital to the success of the run.



Wednesday morning, I sit in a hotel conference room on Main Street, where the vice president of a Canadian mining company explains his plan to drill and blast the steep, glaciated mountains at the headwaters of the Chilkat Watershed, looking for minerals. He dangles the carrot of jobs and prosperity. He mentions another town that got funding for its swimming pool, but he makes no commitments. He says the mine jobs won’t last forever, so we should take advantage of the prosperity while it’s on offer.

But what is on offer? Today, the waters downstream of the proposed mine site teem with fish that have sustained the Chilkat Lingít for millennia. Soon, the salmon will arrive. Their protein will feed families, support our tourism, arts, fishing, and outdoor recreation-based economy. Mink, otters, wolverine, bears, eagles, and wolves will roam the river system, dragging salmon carcasses to shore where they will decay and deliver ocean nutrients to the land, feeding the temperate rainforest that is our home, that provides oxygen to the world.

The Chilkat Watershed is among the most resilient and diverse ecosystems in Alaska. Thanks to abundant snowpack and glaciers, this watershed will provide cool, fresh water long after it becomes scarce elsewhere. If we nurture this forest and keep its water clean, this will be one of the last refugia for wild salmon as the planet warms. Already, this is among the last places where all five Pacific salmon species thrive, and the saak and herring return to spawn. Though, the herring might not always return. It’s said that when the piles were driven for the ferry terminal, the saak didn’t run up Chilkoot Inlet that year.

In January, the gold mine south of here spilled over 100,000 gallons of heavy metal-laden tailings into Berners Bay, a place that is vital to this region’s herring. We know that heavy metals harm fish: selenium causes severe spinal deformities; copper interferes with the salmon’s ability to navigate to natal streams to spawn. The Palmer Mine proposed for the Chilkat headwaters threatens to pollute this vital river system with heavy metals and acid mine drainage that would require active water treatment forever. The contamination begins during mineral exploration, long before a full-blown mine is developed.

The mining executive tries to evade our questions, but he finally admits that he’s evaluating the lands at the confluence of Glacier Creek and the Klehini River — pristine, salmon-bearing water bodies that flow into the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve, the world’s only preserve of its kind — for tailings storage. He tells us we need this mine for the green transition. It will provide copper for electric vehicles, to curb emissions. But at what cost? Will we sacrifice our clean water and the last wild Pacific salmon, herring, and saak for a few years of jobs and minerals? There are other ways: mine the waste rock at existing mines, mine the dumps, invest in more efficient, less polluting recycling technologies, implement water quality standards that actually protect our precious clean water sources and downstream communities. We cannot solve the climate emergency with the same mechanisms that created it.

The herring, the saak, the whales, and our communities need clean water and a livable climate; we cannot sacrifice one for the other.


Shannon Kelly Donahue is an environmental writer and advocate living in the old growth forest outside of Haines, Alaska, where she is executive director of the Great Bear Foundation. When she’s not writing or advocating, she might be found learning the Irish language, listening for owls, or playing her vintage concertina to a whale. Shannon is honored to live and work on Jilkáat Aani, the homelands of the Chilkat Língit.


Call to action: You can help to protect the Chilkat Watershed by supporting the Great Bear Foundation, Lynn Canal Conservation, Takshanuk Watershed Council, and the Chilkat Indian Village of Klukwan.