ANCHORAGE (KTUU) — *Editors note: This article originally credited the Bristol Bay fishery with employing 8000 Alaskans. The fisher employs around 8000 people, of which about 4500 are residents of Alaska.
With funding from the developers of the proposed Pebble Mine project, a small group of Bristol Bay commercial fisherman have filed a lawsuit against a regional seafood development association for allegedly directing funds toward Pebble Mine opposition advocacy projects.
The lawsuit alleges that Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association is using money to enter into contracts with "anti-Pebble Mine" organizations rather than simply focusing on marketing Alaska-sourced seafood.
Established by Bristol Bay fisherman in 2005, BBRSDA is funded solely by a 1% tax assessment of its members annual salmon harvests, with the stated goal of enhancing the value of the Bristol Bay salmon fishery through projects aimed at marketing, quality and sustainability.
BBRSDA executive director Andy Wink tells KTUU that the association does much more than just marketing and advertising Alaska seafood.
"The word 'promote' has a broad definition," Wink said. "We undertake a variety of activities that fit within the list of statutory purposes and collectively function to raise the value of the fishery."
Wink says the Bristol Bay fishery employs roughly 8,000 people (4,500 Alaskans) while accounting for roughly half the value of all Alaska commercial salmon sales in 2018.
He says the value of Bristol Bay sockeye averaged $156 million from 2012-2016, but exceeded $270 million in each of the past two years.
The plaintiffs in the case — Trefim Andrew, Gary Nielson, Henry Olympic, Tim Anelon, and Abe and Braden Williams — are all members of the BBRSDA.
Abe Williams, who previously held a seat on the BBRSDA Board, is also employed by the Pebble Limited Partnership under the title of Director of Regional Affairs.
The lawsuit references two BBRSDA contracts relating to Pebble Mine.
One includes an agreement between the BBRSDA and the United Tribes of Bristol Bay in which the seafood development association would provide $225,000 "for various activities, including, 'Educating the public about how to contact state and federal officials to communicate their views on the Pebble Mine project, and to assist the public in preparing testimony regarding the same.'"
The other is a $27,383 contract with the advocacy group SalmonState for "technical analysis and review of information related to the Pebble Mine Draft Environment Statement."
Pebble Partnership Vice President of Public Affairs Mike Heatwole told KTUU in a written statement that Pebble agreed to fund the fisherman's lawsuit because the plaintiffs lacked the resources to fund it independently.
"There were several fishermen that we’ve gotten to know over the years who were quite angered by the fact that the taxes they pay on their fish landings is not being use to market and promote the fish. Instead, this money is being used to fund anti-Pebble activities," Heatwole said in part. "As they have limited personal funds, we agreed to fund this litigation on their behalf. This is in no way a challenge to BBRSDA’s ability to participate in the Pebble permitting process. Nor is it a challenge to the organizing efforts of UTBB and Salmon State. Their efforts can continue but it shouldn’t be done with fish marketing money."
KTUU reached out to one of the plaintiffs who declined to comment without first seeking legal counsel.