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Jewelers, Fishermen, Alaska Natives Join Forces to Protect World's Greatest Wild Salmon Fishery

BRISTOL BAY, ALASKA, Feb. 9 — Valentine's Day is the biggest holiday for sales of gold jewelry in the U.S., and these days, many love-struck sweethearts want to know where their gold comes from. This year leading jewelers, commercial fishermen and Alaska Natives all want to make sure it doesn't come from a monster open-pit mine that would threaten the world's largest wild salmon fishery.

Fifty-four jewelers, representing more than $5.75 billion in annual sales, have pledged not to use gold from the proposed Pebble Mine at the headwaters of Bristol Bay in Southwest Alaska. The mine, a project of Anglo American PLC of London and Northern Dynasty Minerals of Vancouver, B.C., would be the largest open-pit mine in North America, and generate up to 10 billion tons of toxic waste that would be disposed in the Bristol Bay watershed.

This is the first time that a large number of jewelers, including Zale Corp., Helzberg Diamonds, Boucheron and others, have taken a position on a specific place or mine — a precedent-setting moment for the industry. Jewelers are an important voice in this issue because jewelry demand accounts for 80% of annual mined production of gold.

“Jostens recognizes that Alaska's Bristol Bay Watershed is an ecosystem of national and international significance and we support permanent protection of the Bristol Bay Fishery Reserve from large-scale metals mining,” said Richard Stoebe, communications director of Jostens, a prominent class ring company.

“In the long run, the pursuit of the mine project will be detrimental to the local communities both environmentally and economically,” said Damien Dernoncourt, CEO of John Hardy Jewelry, one of the most recent jewelers to sign the pledge. “We extend our support to the protection of the Bristol Bay watershed and hope that others will join us in building a more sustainable future where business can grow.”

Commercial fishermen and the Alaska Native villages of the region who rely on the salmon fishery, which generates roughly $450 million annually and supplies 10,000 jobs, are asking the Environmental Protection Agency to head off the Pebble project by invoking a provision in the Clean Water Act that would restrict the dumping of mine waste in streams, wetlands and rivers that drain into the Bay. On Monday, the EPA announced that the agency is launching a scientific review of the suitability of large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed, in response to requests from tribes and others. The EPA's action does not represent any regulatory decision by the agency; but “represents EPA's proactive steps to better understand the watershed and gather important scientific information.”

“Salmon is life and our red gold,” said Kim Williams, executive director for Nunamta Aulukestai (Caretakers of our Land), an association of nine Alaska Native village corporations in Bristol Bay. “It sustains our economy and our people. “The support from jewelers and the recent announcement by EPA are a great gift this Valentine's Day. We're confident that this scientific review will show clearly why Bristol Bay should be protected under Section 404(c).”

“More than half the world's sockeye spawn and are harvested in the waters of Bristol Bay,” said Bob Waldrop, executive director of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, which represents 1,865 driftnet fishermen. “For the fishery to continue and prosper, the region's water and habitat must be protected.”

On Feb. 14, Nunamta Aulukestai, the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association and the Alaska Independent Fishermen's Marketing Association are running full-page ads in Washington, D.C.'s Politico and Roll Call, urging the EPA to invoke Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act, a science-based process which gives the agency the authority, after holding public hearings, to “prohibit the discharge… of dredged or fill material” in U.S. waters if it “would have an unacceptable adverse impact on… fisheries, wildlife, municipal water supplies, or recreational areas.”

That same day, Alaskans will be sending Valentines to key members of Congress and EPA officials in Washington D.C. that state: “As Alaska Natives and commercial fishermen of Bristol Bay, we urge the EPA to initiate the Clean Water Act's 404(c) process to protect the waters of Bristol Bay from billions of tons of mine waste.”

The Obama Administration has cancelled future leases for offshore oil drilling in Bristol Bay because, as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said, it is “simply too special to drill.” With gold selling at record highs of over $1,300 an ounce, permits applications for the Pebble Mine are expected later this year.

“We commend these jewelers for their pledge,” said Bonnie Gestring of Earthworks, a national mining reform organization. “Consumers don't want the symbol of their love to come at the expense of this national treasure.”

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