Fur seals rest on the beach at St. Paul Island in 2017. About two-thirds of the world’s northern fur seal population breeds in the Pribilof Islands in the eastern Bering Sea, but the overall population has declined by about 70 percent since the 1970s. A marine sanctuary proposed by the St. Paul tribal government seeks to advance the research that island residents say is needed to protect the vulnerable seals and other marine life. (Photo provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
The Pribilof Islands, a set of four volcanic outcroppings, rise out of the eastern Bering Sea hundreds of miles from the mainland. They are at the center of a teeming marine ecosystem – with waters that hold the world’s biggest concentrations of northern fur seals, a population that has struggled alarmingly in the past decades. The islands are also used by sea lions and millions of seabirds that feed on huge schools of fish that support some of the world’s biggest commercial seafood harvests.
Now residents are trying to get some new protections for the region through the establishment of a marine sanctuary with a fitting Unangam Tunuu name: Alaĝum Kanuux̂, which means “Heart of the Sea.”
It would be the first national marine sanctuary in Alaska. And it would be the first in the nation to employ a co-management system that puts a tribal government on par with the federal and state governments.
The Aleut Community of St. Paul, the tribal government proposing the sanctuary, characterizes the plan as an innovative approach that is “necessary to achieve meaningful and durable conservation in our region and beyond,” according to the application.
“Our ultimate vision is a designated, co-managed marine area that supports the growth of local and regional economies and advances conservation. As a lifelong commercial halibut fisherman, I’ve witnessed the changes occurring in our ecosystem and their impacts on our people. It’s time for proactive change for the better, and I’m proud that our Tribe is leading this movement,” Amos Philemonoff, president of the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island tribal government, said in a statement.
The proposal, also known as the Pribilof Island Marine Island Ecosystem, has cleared one important hurdle: official nomination approval by the federal government, granted in June. It is now on the inventory list maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Marine Sanctuaries, which means it will be considered an active proposal for up to five years.
Next is a public review process that the sanctuary proposers hope will be completed within 18 months to two years, said Lauren Divine, director of the St. Paul tribal government’s ecosystem conservation office.
If a sanctuary is created, it would encompass yet-to-be-determined waters around St. Paul Island, home to about 400 people, and administered by a superintendent.
The main benefit would be a new focus on science and research, from an Indigenous perspective and with Indigenous control, Divine said. Establishment of a sanctuary can focus those research efforts and draw more funding “that in the long term is going to help restore the ecosystem and help recover some species,” she said.
And that would mean a change in the way the region has been managed by others – from the 18th century period when Russian colonizers forced the region’s Unangan people into industrial-scale seal harvests to feed a global fur market to present-day industrial-scale seafood harvests.
“Right now, it is a lot of extraction,” Divine said.
Establishment of a sanctuary, however, would not impose any new rules on fishing or other activities, she said – repeating a point that proponents have stressed.
“There’s no authority for the superintendent to unilaterally bar fishing in the sanctuary area,” Divine said.
While sanctuary managers could suggest new rules to protect resources as new information arises, any such suggestions would have to be approved by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council or other existing regulatory bodies, Divine said.
Climate change, pollution taking toll on Pribilof ecosystem
What makes the region so biologically rich also makes it vulnerable.
Changes in the Bering Sea have been dramatic in recent decades, as have reductions in the world’s northern fur seal population, two-thirds of which uses the Pribilof Islands for breeding, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The fur seal population has suffered a 70 percent decline since the 1970s and is classified as “depleted” by the U.S. government and “vulnerable” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Sea ice that used to extend south to St. Paul Island dependably in winter is now only occasionally present during the season. From 2014 to this year, sea ice was present only three winters. The past winter’s ice lingered for a little over a month, about half the amount of time that used to be normal, according to a report by the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Alaska Ocean Observing System.
Associated are warmer air temperatures, a trend that will continue, according to UAF’s Scenarios Network for Alaska and Arctic Planning, or SNAP. Even if carbon emissions are minimized, at least two months of the year – December and January – will switch by midcentury from having average temperatures below freezing to average temperatures above freezing, according to the SNAP calculations.
The ocean currents that draw nutrients and fish to the Pribilof area also bring in marine trash – a well-recognized hazard for the fur seals, especially for young animals, which are at risk for entanglements that put plastic around their necks, shoulders or flippers. A 1987 study found that rates of entanglements for Pribilof fur seals had doubled since the 1950s, correlating with the rise of the industrial-scale Bering Sea groundfish industry.
The ocean and atmospheric currents also bring in long-lived contaminants, sometimes from thousands of miles away. Fur seals and other marine mammals have been accumulating those contaminants in their bodies. Levels of contaminants like DDT that have been banned or phased out have declined in fur seals’ bodies, but contaminants that are still being used, like certain fire retardants, are showing up in increasing concentrations, a 2016 study found.
And there is ongoing debate about whether the pollock fishery, the nation’s top-volume commercial fish harvest, has caused or is contributing to the fur seal decline.
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A study published last fall in the journal of Marine Science and Engineering was the first to tie huge pollock harvests to low pup survival. Even if overall pollock biomass is high, the study said, large harvests occurring within the fur seals’ foraging area diminish the density of schools there and thus the food that nursing seal mothers need to raise their young. Pollock catches more than about 1 million metric tons within 300 kilometers of the Pribilof Islands are expected to suppress pup survival, “leading to continued decline of the population.”
Fishing industry, island neighbors skeptical about sanctuary idea
While the sanctuary proposal is structured to exclude fishery conflicts, it is already drawing opposition from the fishing industry.
“I’m very concerned about some of the statements that I hear. I think they’re sincere, but I’m just not quite sure they can be fulfilled,” Stephanie Madsen, executive director of the trade group representing factory trawlers that harvest Alaskan pollock, said at the June meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.
Her organization, the At-Sea Processors Association, considers the goal of protecting the region laudable, Madsen said. “It’s a shared ecosystem and the pollock fishery would not exist if we don’t keep the Bering Sea a healthy ecosystem,” she said. And the association respects the efforts to explore new tourism and economic development opportunities, she said.
But meetings with the sanctuary proposers and NOAA sanctuary program managers have been unsatisfactory, Madsen said. “We continue to feel that we get conflicting and opaque answers,” she said.
The Alaĝum Kanuux̂ plan also faces skepticism from what might seem like an unlikely party – the city and tribal governments on St. George, a neighboring Pribilof Island with fewer than 100 residents. Months ago, the city and tribal governments notified NOAA that they do not support establishment of any marine sanctuary that includes waters around St. George. Reasons cited included St. George’s ambitions to build a harbor, a project that local officials worry might be stymied by the sanctuary.
The sanctuary plan has been modified to reflect those positions from the St. George governments. Previously proposed boundaries were removed, as were any suggestions of support by the St. George city government or tribe.
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