On an Alaskan island, a mayor fights for fur seals – and a new future

Fur seals rest along the north coast in St. George, Alaska, USA, May 22, 2021. Hundreds of thousands of fur seals spend their summer in St. George each year. REUTERS

ST. GEORGE ISLAND, Alaska – Fifty years ago, Patrick Pletnikoff spent his summers removing fat from the carcasses of death-clubbed seals during Alaska’s annual harvest, competing with other young men to show who wielded the blade the fastest.

Now he’s fighting for a greater prize: transforming the fortunes of his home island of St. George and protecting the declining northern fur seal colonies by creating Alaska’s first marine sanctuary in the surrounding waters – a decision that would allow residents to limit seal fishing. prey.

The commercial seal was once the lifeblood of St. George, a treeless grain of volcanic rock far from the Americas. But the indigenous Unangan community has struggled to find a new niche in the decades since the trade ban, and there are now fewer than 60 residents left.

As longtime mayor, Pletnikoff has spent years lobbying the federal government to add St. George to America’s network of 15 marine sanctuaries, in the hopes that a designation will launch a new “conservation economy.” based on ecotourism, science research and sustainable fishing.

With President Joe Biden pledging to expand ocean protection, Pletnikoff believes his dream of putting his house surrounded by fog on a par with shrines like Monterey Bay in California or the Florida Keys might finally be at hand.

“It could be a new beginning,” said Pletnikoff, 73, of his plan for St. George, which, along with neighboring St. Paul, is sometimes called the “Galapagos of the North” for its role as a refuge for the wildlife in the North Pacific.

“We are going to look at this holistically and try to understand what our responsibilities are: not only to ourselves, but also to our environment and the animal kingdom,” he said.

With climate change also affecting the surrounding Bering Sea, where sea ice in recent winters has hit its lowest level in millennia, advocates say the proposal could ease the pressure on seals by giving islanders more weight in industrial pollock trawling decisions that the species depends on for food.

Establishing a shrine could also help right historical wrongs, Pletnikoff added.

Generations of his Unangan ancestors worked under harsh conditions in the seal trade, run first by Russian explorers and then by the US government. The lingering sense of exploitation is evoked in a contemporary folk song called “Slaves of the Harvest”.

Now, the National Marine Sanctuaries program, managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), aims to give local people more autonomy to manage designated waters – including a greater voice in fisheries policies.

With the Bering Sea considered one of the most lucrative and rigorously monitored fisheries in the world, operated by vessels sailing 2,000 miles from Seattle to haul their nets off St. George, fishermen are wary.

The industry says the area is already sustainably managed by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, an advisory body that sets quotas in consultation with fishermen, Alaskan communities and scientists.

“Limiting or removing their regulatory power in an area without scientific challenges is a solution to the search for a problem,” said Gavin Gibbons, spokesperson for the industry group at the National Fisheries Institute.

Dark but beautiful

As a child, Pletnikoff walked with his father through the island’s unforgiving landscape, learning to hunt and fish. Her eyes fill with tears at the thought that her people’s knowledge of St. George’s seals, Steller’s sea lions, and seabirds might be lost.

Nevertheless, at one level, the mayor has managed to approximate the status of a sanctuary.

Patrick Pletnikoff,

Patrick Pletnikoff, Mayor of St. George Village, poses for a press photo in Anchorage, Alaska, United States, April 2, 2021. REUTERS

In December, a congressional committee asked NOAA to begin nominating five sanctuary nominations it had already accepted for formal review, including St. George’s proposal that Pletnikoff submitted in October 2016.

In April, Biden proposed a record $ 6.9 billion budget for NOAA, with funds earmarked for designations that also include a Chumash Heritage Sanctuary project off the coast of California, the Lake Erie quadrangle in Pennsylvania, the Hudson Canyon in the Atlantic and the Mariana Trench in the Western Pacific.

Biden’s focus on Indigenous stewardship in his goal of protecting 30% of America’s land and seas by 2030 may also work in Plentikoff’s favor.

“Increasingly, federal officials recognize that tribes need to be more in the driver’s seat when it comes to land or environmental issues,” said Raina Thiele, co-chair of Biden’s Native American Policy Committee.

But establishing a sanctuary can take years, as NOAA launches rounds of public consultations, drafts management plans, and seeks approval from politicians.

With St. George’s proposal not having a champion in the Alaska State Government or its Congressional delegation, which is made up of Republicans, there can be no assurance that it will move forward so early.

Struck by thunderstorms and a corrosive sea breeze, the dilapidated facades of the island’s wooden houses suggest the mayor may not have much time to reverse the decline.

Nearby, dramatic 1,000-foot cliffs provide nesting sites for most of the world’s population of kittiwakes, a species of the gull family, while starfish, puffins and murres also thrive.

But it is the northern fur seals that roll lazy in the waves or playfully fight with their fins that are closest to Pletnikoff’s heart.

Legacy of bondage

St. George takes its name from a Russian sloop that made landfall on the then uninhabited island in June 1786 while following seals in the fog.

The Russians wereted no time in rounding up the Unangan from the Aleutian island chain some 220 miles (355 km) to the south to harvest and butcher the seals. For much of the 19th century, the business was Alaska’s most profitable industry.

Passed under American control following the takeover of Alaska in 1867, the commercial seal hunt remained the basis of the local economy until it was banned in Saint-Georges and Saint-Paul, the main islands of the Pribilof chain. , in 1973 and 1984 respectively.

Trade cast a long shadow: Federal overseers once dictated nearly every aspect of life on the islands, including whom Unangan workers could marry, historians say.

The system only gained national attention after more than 800 islanders of Pribilof and Aleutians were interned on the mainland of Alaska in appalling conditions during World War II. Several members of Pletnikoff’s family were among the 10% who died.

Since the seal hunt ended, St. George’s population has declined by about 75% from its peak of 250 in the early 1960s. Four years ago, the only school closed.

st george alaska

The village of St. George, located in the Pribilof Islands, is seen here in the Bering Sea, Alaska, United States on May 21, 2021. REUTERS

Meanwhile, northern fur seals have declined. In St. George and St. Paul, their main breeding grounds, the number has fallen to around 459,000, from 2.1 million in the 1950s, according to NOAA estimates.

On the uninhabited island of Bogoslof to the south, however, the number of northern fur seals has dropped from almost none 30 years ago to around 161,000.

Researchers have spent years examining the possible factors at play: from vessel disturbance and entanglement in fishing gear to pollution, killer whale predation and climate change.

In December, an analysis of the diet of northern fur seals published in Frontiers in Marine Science found that previous studies may have “vastly underestimated” the amount of walleye pollock consumed by the species.

Although scientists are unsure of what impact fishing might have on seal numbers today, Pletnikoff saw in the article a justification for what he had long suspected: Large trawlers compete directly for animal prey. .

Not everyone thinks that a sanctuary would bring tangible benefits.

Some wonder how many tourists would find themselves stranded when the fog flies on the ground. Others fear that changes to the current management system may hinder prospects for job creation in the fishing industry at the local level.

“The benefits of a sanctuary beyond the conservation measures and public forum that are already supported by this existing regulatory framework are unclear,” said Luke Fanning, chief executive of the nonprofit. Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association, which supports a small-scale project. St. George’s halibut fishing program.

Nonetheless, with American and European seabird biologists who have fond memories of field visits to St. George supporting his plan, Pletnikoff is hopeful that a sanctuary designation could spur the creation of a permanent research station.

His vision: to combine modern science with ancestral knowledge to find ways to protect seals and other wildlife from the challenges ahead.

“Generations of Unangan, including my younger siblings, have grown up knowing nothing more than fur seals and seabirds – and knowing our surroundings,” he said. “We don’t want to see this destroyed.”

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