If you’ve been wondering what it would take to get chefs to move from embracing seafood sustainability to outright activism for it, check out the controversy that surrounds Alaska’s proposed Pebble mine, whose enablers include former Alaska governor Sarah Palin. Opponents say the gigantic open pit gold and copper operation will seriously impact the salmon-rich Bristol Bay fishery. Last week, 11 Seattle fine dining restaurants went on the offensive to save it.
As governor, Palin claimed to be neutral on the Pebble mine issue, although many Alaskans wonder how this jibed with statements she made while campaigning for the governorship. “I am a commercial fisherman; my daughter’s name is Bristol,” said Ms. Palin, whose family holds a Bristol Bay set net permit. “I could not support a project that risks one resource that we know is a given, and that is the world’s richest spawning grounds, over another resource.”
But after winning, she found a way to help make the mine a reality without technically breaking her campaign pledge. Palin lead the charge against the Clean Water Act, a 2008 state referendum meant to stem the discharge of toxic materials from big mines in Alaska. Polls showed that the measure was a 2-1 shoo-in before she came out against it; it subsequently failed. Had it won, the permitting process for the Pebble mine would have been formidable; now it’s not.
The mine would be built on top of a massive mineral deposit located in the headwaters of some of Bristol Bay’s most productive salmon rivers. The mine’s toxic waste wouldn’t pollute Bristol Bay per se. The fear is it would do serious damage to the spawning areas that feed Bristol Bay. Mine proponents say all potential harm will be mitigated; opponents foresee the death of the nation’s largest and most valuable wild salmon fishery.
Those opponents include commercial fishermen (of whom Palin is nominally one) and the industry they support; environmentalists; Alaskan natives; and sportfishing group Trout Unlimited. The Seattle chefs hope to get the general public involved by educating them about the benefits of wild Bristol Bay salmon, one dish at a time.
“Bristol Bay produces some of the world’s best wild salmon and yields the largest run of sockeye salmon on the planet,” says Kevin Davis, co-owner and executive chef of Seattle’s Steelhead Diner. “I’m pleased to feature this extraordinary seafood in my restaurant and I encourage people to try it. I’m certain they’ll want to do what they can to protect Bristol Bay from the proposed mine.”
The Steelhead Diner was just one restaurant featured in the Savor Bristol Bay event. Also participating were Art of the Table, Chiso, Emmer & Rye, Flying Fish, Persimmon, Ponti Seafood Grill, Rover’s Restaurnt, Tilth, Tilikum Place Café and the Pike Brewing Co. In addition to tasty meals, the chefs passed out salmon recipe cards and brochures about the Bristol Bay fishery and Pebble mine. The week-long event was timed to coincide with Pacific Marine Expo 2009, the largest commercial marine trade show on the West Coast, which also took place in Seattle last week.
So does anyone really care what a few chefs in another state think about the Pebble mine and Bristol Bay? John Shively, c.e.o. of the Pebble Partnership, sure didn’t like it. “I don’t think that chefs in Seattle from high-priced restaurants have any idea of how hard it is for people in rural Alaska to live there,” he told the Fairbanks News-Miner. “Therefore, I find it a little bit disingenuous that they would eliminate this potential economic opportunity without even understanding what the project is like.”
Sounds like the chefs definitely struck a nerve. So far, there’s been no comment from Palin, currently in the midst of her Going Rogue book promotion tour.