Bristol Bay, Alaska, provides more than half of the world’s sockeye salmon. And every summer, hundreds of commercial fishermen from the Puget Sound region join Alaskan locals to reap the benefits of its pristine salmon habitat.
Seattle director Mark Titus started going there as a young man working in processing during college. He went on to become a wilderness fishing guide. And in 2014, he made his first feature documentary about the threat to wild salmon from a proposed gold and copper mine in Bristol Bay.
That film ended on an optimistic note, as opposition convinced the Environmental Protection Agency to intervene and stop the so-called Pebble Mine. Five years later, his latest film is an update – with mining officials forging ahead under a new administration.
The film — titled “The Wild: How Do You Save What You Love?" — had its world premiere Sunday at the Seattle International Film Festival. It has two more screenings this week, Tuesday afternoon in Ballard and Saturday in Shoreline.
KNKX environment reporter Bellamy Pailthorp sat down with Titus to learn more.
Titus says people are often surprised to hear that the fight over Bristol Bay and the proposed Pebble Mine is not over.
“It really looked that way and it kind of went off of people’s radars. And I think that was really great news for the folks that want to put the mine in there," Titus said. "Because most folks who get wind of this issue don’t see the sense in putting what would be North America’s largest open-pit copper mine in the headwaters of the last, fully intact wild salmon run on earth.”
Five years ago, the EPA under the Obama administration conducted a three-year watershed assessment, determining that the proposed mine in Bristol Bay would have adverse effects on salmon and could not move forward. Flash forward to a short, closed-door meeting with the new administration in 2016, Titus says, and the EPA is instructed to stand down on the previous protections.
Now, the Army Corps of Engineers is overseeing a new permitting process for a mining plan that the Pebble Limited Partnership says will have a smaller footprint. After much protest from commercial fishermen, scientists and some local community members comments on the project’s environmental statement were recently extended to June 30.
Titus expects the fight to go on long beyond then. He says there’s too much at stake for opponents to stand down.
“Bristol Bay holds the largest intact wild salmon run left on earth,” he says.
For comparison's sake, he says, Western Washington’s Columbia River salmon runs once saw tens of millions of salmon return, in the great years at the system’s peak productivity. “Bristol Bay just last year saw 65 million sockeye salmon alone,” he says. And there are four other species returning to the system, as well.
“So it’s a sight to behold — a feeling to behold. My film doesn’t really even, frankly, do it justice,” Titus said. “That amount of biomass that comes into a spot at one given time for such a short window, it’s profound. It’s moving. And it let’s you know that you’re not the biggest thing, totally in control on this planet.”
His movie also tells a very personal story. The crisis for opposition to the Pebble Mine with the changes in the White House came at the same time that Titus had a crisis of his own: his grandmother’s death, a cancer diagnosis for his mom and his realization that he had to get sober. He checked himself into a hospital to detox. And 50 days later, he was on a friend’s boat, headed back to Bristol Bay with his camera.
He says he was in a precarious place mentally and physically, deeply afraid he might slip and start drinking again. But his love for salmon and all it symbolizes kept him going.
“Like so many people, I’m a child of the Northwest and I grew up around this totemic icon, that really defines us and, in my opinion, defines our better character,” Titus said. “Wild salmon return every year to the same spot they were born for one reason: so that life can continue. And they give their own lives — their very life essence itself, their bodies — so that life can continue for their children and for 137 other creatures that benefit from the nutrients they bring from the sea.”
His film contains interviews with the Pebble Mine’s leadership, as well as scores of Bristol Bay advocates opposed to the development. Titus says after the Seattle screenings, he hopes to show it at film festivals nationwide. In addition, he says smaller screenings will be hosted wherever possible.
“Most people in the lower 48 have never heard of Bristol Bay, much less the Pebble Mine, much less wild salmon from there,” Titus said. “So our mission as storytellers — my team and a lot of other folks who have been working on this issue for many years — is to bring this issue to as many people as we possibly can. Because what I’ve found is — going into schools and places of worship and theaters and screenings across this country — when people see what’s at stake here, it’s a very obvious conclusion they come to, that it’s just not worth the risk.”