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Protecting freshwater seals in Alaska’s Lake Iliamna

lake iliamna

If the rivers and streams of Alaska’s Bristol Bay comprise a salmon circulatory system, then Lake Iliamna is its beating blue heart. The lake, the eighth largest in the United States, is vast enough to cover Los Angeles, New York City, and Boston simultaneously—deep enough to swallow the Hoover Dam and then some. Every year, millions of salmon spawn in waters so pure that residents drink straight from the lake.

But salmon aren’t the only creatures that flourish in Iliamna. The lake is also home to a population of around 400 harbor seals, which feast on fish and bask on the rocky islands at the lake’s northeastern end.

Wait a second—seals? In a lake?

“Given how special these seals are, ensuring their habitat is protected is a very smart approach to management.”

Margaret Williams
Managing Director, WWF Arctic Program

You heard that right. In the distant past, ocean-going harbor seals migrated more than 60 miles up the Kvichak River and into the lake, where, enticed by the abundant salmon, they stuck around. Today, the Iliamna seals represent one of only five populations of freshwater seals in the world.

“Freshwater seals are yet another amazing feature of the globally significant Bristol Bay watershed,” says Margaret Williams, managing director of WWF’s Arctic program. “They also provide more evidence about the keystone role of salmon in the ecosystem.”

Iliamna’s seals, and the salmon that feed them, aren’t just special—they’re also under threat from Pebble Mine, the enormous open-pit gold and copper mine proposed for headwaters just 17 miles northwest of the seals’ haul-out sites. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the mine would destroy over 90 miles of streams and 5,000 acres of wetlands, wiping out critical “salmon factories” and thereby depriving the seals of prey.

Over the years, the WWF and its allies have been working to safeguard Iliamna’s seals, and the rest of Bristol Bay’s menagerie, by campaigning against Pebble Mine. Though the mine remains a threat, the bay’s defenders are closer to victory than ever: In 2014, the EPA began considering vetoing the harmful project under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act.

And earlier in 2015, the seals received another piece of good news: their rocky islands will be protected, now and forever, by a conservation easement courtesy of the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust.

A portrait of Tim Troll and Nanci Morris Lyon, the organizers of the guide academy, in front of Kulik Lodge.

Tim Troll and Nanci Morris Lyon, the organizers of the guide academy, in front of Kulik Lodge.

The land trust is the brainchild of Tim Troll, a white-bearded, no-nonsense conservationist who founded the organization in 2000. In the years since, the trust has conserved more than 20,000 acres, securing crucial lands for wildlife while providing locals with fair market value for their property. “Our first emphasis is the need to identify and protect habitat that has important value to salmon,” Troll says.

A few years back, Troll and the trust turned their sights on the constellation of Iliamna islands that make up the freshwater seals’ preferred habitat. The islands are owned by the Pedro Bay Village Corporation, a native corporation representing 170 shareholders of Aleut, Eskimo and Indian heritage.

This fall, the land trust and the village corporation successfully negotiated a conservation easement that will permanently protect nearly 100 islands, constituting 12,700 acres, from development.

The final step for the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust: raising the requisite funds to complete the easement and, you might say, seal the deal. “This agreement shows a lot of leadership with respect to stewardship of this special place, and communities should be recognized for taking that step,” says Williams of WWF, which provided the land trust with aerial photos and video of the haul-out islands. “Given how special these seals are, ensuring their habitat is protected is a very smart approach to management.”