Time to honor nature and Native communities in Alaska’s Pribilof Islands

Our people have faced a century of broken promises, internment under Franklin Roosevelt, and economic hardships. We’re now impacted by the precipitous decline of both seal and fish populations on our productive home islands.

By Pat Pletnikoff

In the remote Pribilof Islands, high in the Bering Sea, the federal government achieved one of its first great conservation milestones with the Fur Seal Treaty of 1911. It protected a biodiversity hotspot extending 60 miles out from the islands—the Pribilof Domain—known among biologists as the Galapagos of the North.

Now, that legacy is in jeopardy. The population of northern fur seals – a “depleted” species which uses the islands as its main rookery — is plummeting; so are the populations of the 240 migratory birds who depend on the volcanic islands and the marine life teeming in surrounding waters.

Northern fur seal rookery in the Pribilof Islands. Courtesy of NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center.

Native communities in the islands are hanging in the balance. Our Native Aleut ancestors once depended on the fur seal trade only to be told they would be fishermen in a new era in the Pribilofs. Our people have faced a century of broken promises, internment under Franklin Roosevelt, and economic hardships. We’re now impacted by the precipitous decline of both seal and fish populations on our productive home islands.

Nobody can say for sure what’s causing the declines. We know that the productive waters off the Pribilofs draw heavy fishing from the Pollock industry, which affects prey species for birds and seals. Wildlife managers have said that climate change or changing weather patterns may also be the culprits.

What is clear: it is time to step up protections in the islands and give native species – and the Native communities that depend on them – a chance to recover.

“Greatest Assemblage of Wild Animals,” Checkered Past

The area encompassing the two Pribilof Islands, St. George and St. Paul, is so productive that a biologist told National Geographic in 1951 it was “the greatest assemblage of wild animals to be seen in such a limited area.” Perched at the edge of the continental shelf 230 miles north of the Aleutian Islands, and washed by the Bering Slope Current, the Pribilof waters are full of nutrients and sea life. The skies are streaked with puffins, which roost on the cliffs of St. George, and the islands are home to unique species of kelp, Arctic fox, and several birds found nowhere else. Stellar sea lions and harbor seals rear young on the islands, along with the fur seals.

At two canyons near the islands, scientists are fleshing out a picture of one of the most important habitats and refuges for both the rockfish we all eat, as well as rare, delicate species like the snailfish and the shortspine thornyhead. In a recent report, scientists from UC Santa Barbara and Greenpeace also showed evidence of trawl gear etched into the walls of the canyons, in the coral and sponge beds, and well below them to 2,800 feet in depth. Abandoned cables, lines and nets were scattered throughout the canyons.

Native communities have always depended on the islands’ abundance, despite our checkered relationship with the federal government in the islands.

My grandfather worked essentially as an indentured servant for the U.S. government, killing seals in exchange for corned beef as part of a controlled harvest in the early 1900s. After the shift in fur seal management, my parents were interned, along with other Native islanders, during World War II, in squalid conditions at an abandoned mining camp on Admiralty Island in Southeast Alaska — for the simple fact that they “looked Japanese” in the eyes of Washington. Their homes and churches were plundered by U.S. Army soldiers.

In recent years, we’ve had a much more cordial and fruitful relationship with Washington, earning assistance to build back the resources of the tribe, including fishing infrastructure to support a growing fleet of Native black cod and halibut fishermen based in the Pribilofs’ twin ports of St. George and St. Paul.

Native fishermen returning with halibut on St. George Island. Courtesy of NOAA Pribilof Project Office.

Future Protection?

We joined with environmental groups, wildlife managers and the fishing industry for over five years trying to resolve our differing opinions about the Pribilofs, under the umbrella of the Pribilof Islands Collaborative. But when the group adjourned for good in 2010, no protections of marine resources or ecosystems resulted. Meanwhile, the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council is taking a cautious approach on further conservation efforts in the islands.

So the Pribilofs are in many ways adrift, their future uncertain.

Lately, we’ve resumed conversations with our federal partners about different avenues to protections for the Pribilof area. One such conversation focuses on the potential for a tribal designation of the 60-mile zone recognized as ecologically significant by the Fur Seal Treaty as a Cultural Heritage MPA. The goal is to help restore the Pribilof Domain’s globally important abundance, and allow islanders a chance to establish strong, lasting livelihoods.

We owe it to future generations to continue the legacy of conservation in the islands – a legacy now more than a century old.

Pat Pletnikoff is the Mayor of St. George in the Pribilof Islands, Alaska.

Editor’s Note: This piece first appeared in NOAA’s MPA Connections Special Issue on Tribal and Indigenous Peoples and MPAs. NOAA is in the process of presenting, and working with the City of St. George to install, a fur seal monument. The monument will commemorate the 1911 Fur Seal Treaty, and serve as a tribute to the people of St. George, in whose lives the Treaty continues to exert significant influence. A formal dedication is anticipated this month.