5 Questions about Bristol Bay

Alaska State Director Randy Hagenstein talks fish, water and people.

Bristol Bay is the center of the wild salmon universe. Learn more about our efforts to protect this unique place for people and nature.
"Now is the time to double down on our investment in the long-term sustainability of the salmon runs and Bristol Bay communities."

- Randy Hagenstein

Bristol Bay is a place of fish stories. Do you have one to tell?

Randy Hagenstein:

Some years ago, a few of us were fishing our way down Funnel Creek in Katmai National Park. We had been wading back and forth as we worked our way downstream. As we took a break for a snack, a male brown bear emerged from the alders and walked along looking for sockeye salmon to ambush. He was maybe 20 yards away and it was probably our 30th bear encounter that day. I remember asking my fishing partner, “Did you ever think you’d be this close to a big bear and act as if it’s no big deal?” We were deep in the land of salmon and bears, watching this ritual of hunter and hunted that had been in play for millennia. It still moves me every time I remember that moment.

What is The Nature Conservancy doing to protect lands and waters in Bristol Bay?

Randy Hagenstein:

When I began with The Nature Conservancy, 20 years ago now, the file at the top of my in-box was the acquisition of a land parcel at Lower Talarik Creek. It’s a beautiful stream flowing into Lake Iliamna, and we saved it from the kind of development that would have had implications for generations to come. We’ve worked with local communities to similarly protect additional parcels throughout the watershed with one goal in mind: to protect fish habitat. Along the way, we’ve worked with Native people in Bristol Bay to train natural resource staff and build the capacity necessary to protect habitat and culture in an increasingly complex world. We’ve sat together and listened as people told us about the places important for their subsistence tradition, and this traditional ecological knowledge now has a stronger footing in discussions on the future of Bristol Bay resources.

How did the prospect of the Pebble mine affect your approach to protecting habitat?

Randy Hagenstein:

When development of the Pebble gold-copper deposit emerged as a possibility, we shifted our focus to developing and sharing the best available science on the potential risks to salmon and fresh water. It’s quiet and methodical work. It doesn’t make for a lot of headlines. It does provide the solid foundation to enable the policy shifts we hope to see.

What’s the Conservancy’s position on the proposed Pebble mine?

Randy Hagenstein:

When people started talking about the proposed mine, we first invested several years and several million dollars in better understanding the nature of the place: What areas are important for salmon? How are they connected? What role do water quality and flow play in salmon life cycles? What are the ways in which a large mine could change what salmon need to flourish? Based on this science, our Alaska Board of Trustees unanimously passed a resolution stating that a) large-scale mining currently presents an inappropriate risk to these globally significant salmon runs and b) that no activities should be permitted in these watersheds unless they meet a very high standard of development. We further outlined several criteria that should form the basis of that standard, including minimal impact to habitat and water flows, the use of technology to deal with acid mine drainage that had been proven effective at comparable sites and scales elsewhere, and mine closure that did not require perpetual active water treatment.

With the prospect of Pebble seemingly diminished for the moment, how would you describe the Conservancy’s future mission in Bristol Bay?

Randy Hagenstein:

Our goal in Bristol Bay remains the same: to ensure that the world’s best salmon nursery remains so. The prospect of development of the Pebble deposit does seem to be diminished for now. Given the global significance of this region for salmon and the importance of salmon to the Indigenous Peoples of the region, now is the time to double down on our investment in the long-term sustainability of the salmon runs and Bristol Bay communities.


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