This story was originally published by High Country News and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

In Southeast Alaska, winter fades and the return of the ooligan (also known as eulachon) in the Unuk River marks the arrival of spring. Ooligan, sm’algyax, is the fish that saves. It forms the basis of an entire regional ecosystem and it is why our people have thrived here since time immemorial. The Unuk flows through the history of our origin and migration, its place names reflecting our ancestors and events critical to our history.

For more than 10,000 years, my family has upheld the sacred duty of stewarding the river. Decades ago, the Unuk was glacier blue. I remember the ooligan coming in, their fluid, silvery forms filling the river. It seemed as though you could cross the water upon their backs. In the 1990s, mining operations began near the headwaters, across the border, in Canada. Ooligan slowly diminished. By 2001, only one fish was observed in the river, causing the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to close the fishery that our communities depended on. This was a devastating blow to our people. Following the closure of the old Eskay Creek Mine, in 2008, the fish started to return gradually, but they haven’t recovered to previous levels.

Mining equipment at the Eskay Creek gold mine, which operated until 2008. Photo by Keith Douglas / Alamy Stock Photo

Earlier this spring, all three generations of my family went up the river to harvest ooligan. We have no say in how the river is managed, but we can harvest in non-customary and non-traditional ways. The water was dark. My father, Louie Wagner, Jr., who has fished here for more than 60 years, said that he had never before seen the river this color. We couldn’t see more than an inch into the water, but we could smell the ooligan coming in, their distinct, sweet scent filling the air. Had the water been as clear as it once was, the arriving ooligan would look like a huge, shining flock of migratory birds beneath the surface of the river.

Casting our nets into the dark water, we caught enough to bring home a few buckets. Although it wasn’t enough to feed the community, the catch held deep meaning. My father said it felt like the end of a long drought. As long as the ooligan keep coming in and continue to find the Unuk suitable to spawn in, we’ll know that the river is healthy.

Now, the mining company Skeena Resources aims to re-open the old Eskay Creek Mine as a large, open-pit operation. It is just one of dozens of developing and operational mines dotting the headwaters of the Unuk, Stikine and Taku Rivers. My concern is that if we allow this region to be transformed into a mining district, these life-giving streams will stop forever. No amount of money can compensate for the loss of our rivers, which provide a home to many critical species — including ooligan, herring and all five species of salmon.

Ten years ago, 15 Southeast Alaska Tribes formed the Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission (SEITC) to protect our life-giving transboundary rivers from the increasing threat of Canadian mining. Today, the headwaters region of these rivers accounts for roughly 44% of British Columbia’s $422 million in mineral exploration expenditures.

Implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Canada ratified in June 2021, requires the government to recognize the rights of the Southeast Tribes and their interests in territories that pre-date the U.S.-Canadian border. In 2021, SEITC requested help from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to prevent violations resulting from mining in the headwaters region of British Columbia. The commission recognized that Canada’s persistent refusal to consult with Alaska Native tribes on large-scale mining development along the transboundary watersheds could violate international human rights and the case moved into its briefing phase in February.

Spring on #Alaska’s Unuk River shouldn’t mean fighting for our way of life. #Ooligan #UnukRiver #Smalgyax #SkeenaResources #EskayCreekMine #UNDRIP

On Jan. 30, we submitted evidence of our historic presence along the Unuk River to British Columbia’s Environmental Assessment Office (BCEAO), for the thorough review of all potential health, environmental, social, economic and heritage effects of proposed mines.

Skeena Resources will submit its environmental assessment to the BCEAO by the end of June. Receiving the environmental assessment certificate is a formal approval for the project to proceed, confirming that it meets environmental and regulatory standards. Concurrently, there will be an opportunity for the public to comment.

Louie Wagner Jr. casts for ooligan on the Unuk River, as his family has for generations. Photo by Sonia Luokkala/SEITC

If the project goes forward, our voices and knowledge would effectively be silenced and erased. Like all governments, Canada has a responsibility to guarantee the ability of all people to exercise their internationally recognized human rights — this includes preventing private parties from taking actions that violate those rights.

While waiting for Canada’s response to the evidence of our presence along the Unuk watershed and the 2021 challenge, we ask that our sovereign rights as the original stewards of these rivers be recognized. The exclusion of our tribal governments from the mine-permitting process has direct adverse effects on our tribal citizens and it leaves a significant gap in the analysis and predictions of the Eskay Creek Mine’s impact on our environment and people.

By honoring the lessons passed down by our foremothers and drawing strength from our ancestors, we can stand up against the forces that have taken so much from us. As we challenge one of the most powerful industries in the world, we stand for true prosperity for both current and future generations — and for the ooligan, whose arrival in the Unuk River turns the season and brings us together.

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Hey, no worries. Just get Suncor (or the former US president) to build a wall! "This opened the door for Suncor’s plan to 'responsibly' develop half of the McClelland wetland by constructing a 14-kilometer-long wall through the middle of this sensitive ecosystem."
from Big Oil has biodiversity in its crosshairs (https://www.nationalobserver.com/2024/06/07/opinion/Big-Oil-Suncor-biodi...)

In a better world national boundaries would coincide with boundaries between watersheds, so that one country cannot dump its mining waste into the waters of another.
In the meantime, there should be cross-border negotiations. How about if Alaskan fishers stop intercepting salmon headed for BC rivers, and Canadian mining companies cease operations in Alaskan watersheds?
First Nations in BC and Alaska could accomplish a lot by working together.