Heather Hardcastle directs Salmon Beyond Borders, a campaign that seeks to protect the transboundary watersheds of Southeast Alaska’s prime salmon rivers that begin in Northwest British Columbia and flow across the border. We spoke with Heather in 2016 to learn about the people and places that inspire her work and the Salmon Beyond Borders campaign.
Wilburforce Foundation: What took you from fishing to a job with a nonprofit organization?
Hardcastle: Almost a decade ago, my husband and I were working full time for Taku River Reds and we wanted to give back by helping with salmon habitat conservation efforts. We volunteered with Trout Unlimited to put together events to help people on the west coast understand how salmon habitat in Southeast connects to the salmon they eat. We encouraged people to ‘vote with your fork’ – to seek out and purchase wild Tongass National Forest salmon, and in so doing, support the sustainable fishery management, communities, and vital salmon habitat of Southeast Alaska.
In 2011, I became a full-time employee at Trout Unlimited, focused on the conservation of key salmon watersheds of the Tongass National Forest, and served as a liaison to the commercial fishing community. Two years later, the opportunity to work on transboundary watershed conservation emerged. It was becoming apparent that the 10-12 large-scale mines proposed for Northwest BC could dramatically impact the Taku, Stikine, and Unuk Rivers — and our way of life in Southeast Alaska. The Salmon Beyond Borders campaign picked up steam in the summer of 2014 when the dam of the tailings pond breached at the Mt. Polley gold and copper mine in the Fraser River watershed in central BC, and created one of the largest mining disasters in Canadian history. Suddenly, the threats we face in Southeast Alaska from the proposed upstream BC mines became stark and real.
Photo: Salmon Beyond Borders
Wilburforce Foundation: What drives your passion for the transboundary rivers?
Hardcastle: When I was growing up, I spent every summer within a couple miles of the Taku River, commercial salmon fishing in Taku Inlet and exploring at my family’s cabin near Taku Harbor. My father is a fisherman and for my parents, salmon has always been the Holy Grail—salmon is what you treated with utmost care. The Taku, and all it provided, led me to graduate studies in ecology and marine and coastal policy. Today, my husband, my parents, dear friends and I co-own a fishing company called Taku River Reds, and we market the salmon caught by my dad and other Southeast Alaska fishermen. So, the conservation of the transboundary region isn’t just about the salmon for me, it’s about the transboundary rivers. The Taku, that river, is who I am.
Wilburforce Foundation: Why are salmon such an important consideration when we think about an ecosystem?
Hardcastle: In many places, like Southeast Alaska, salmon are an intrinsic part of culture, recreation, and the economy. That means that if you consider the ramifications of any potential development through a salmon lens, you’ll learn a lot. If the impacts of a proposed project on salmon will be good or neutral, the development is probably good for the economy and socioeconomics of the region. If it’s bad for salmon, it’s probably bad for many aspects of the community.
Wilburforce Foundation: What’s the best part of your job and the Salmon Beyond Borders campaign?
Hardcastle: The best part of the job is the people: all the people I’ve met already, and those I know are to come.
I also love that this issue, and our over-arching vision for this region, is unprecedented. That makes the work exciting–and incredibly difficult. A binding international agreement to protect these watersheds is the immediate goal. But ultimately, to protect this part of the world for generations to come, we need new ways of thinking and new conservation tools. There’s no management approach now that works for watersheds that cross borders, affect people of two countries, are holistic, and responsive to 21st century resource development pressures. There is an urgency to this work; we need to protect this place so it isn’t impacted beyond a tipping point–and we have to do that fast.
Wilburforce Foundation: What gets people involved and engaged in the campaign?
Hardcastle: I remind people that our elected officials are often only in office for the equivalent of a couple of salmon cycles or less. But it is their responsibility to lead–and we must come together to make those elected officials think, plan, and protect salmon and wildlife, with foresight longer than one salmon cycle. That really resonates with people.
“People are finding solidarity in the cause of protecting the iconic watersheds we all care about.”
Wilburforce Foundation: You’ve talked to thousands of people about the need to protect the transboundary watersheds. What have you learned?
Hardcastle: That we have to keep connecting people in Alaska with those across the border—our Canadian neighbors. First Nation communities’ leaders have shared how they feel under siege by all the mining projects proposed on their territories, and our Alaska Native partners have expressed how they feel like they’re sitting ducks downstream from a potential disaster. Until this campaign, the border had separated people who are all dealing with the same issues and love the same places. Now people are finding solidarity in the cause of protecting the iconic watersheds we all care about. That’s so powerful. If we keep talking to each other, in Alaska and with our neighbors across the border, things will really start to change. It makes no sense to be divided; whether we’re people of the headwaters, or people at the mouth of the rivers, the salmon and wildlife don’t know a division, and we shouldn’t either. This is truly a conservation issue and opportunity beyond borders.