When Indigenous Rights, Conservation, and a Very Lucrative Fishery Collide
March 27, 2023
In the fast-changing Bering Sea, a small tribe makes a big push to save their island
By Kate Golden; illustrations by Lily Nie
THE ISLAND SENTINELS moved through the tundra grass, fast and silent. Wind blew the rain sideways. As the sentinels reached the tundra's edge, the animals caught wind of them and began to flop away en masse. The team slid down a steep bank of sand to the beach, carrying their long noose-poles like spears.
One by one, three nooses looped around the neck of a young northern fur seal, pinning him down. He bellowed hoarsely, baring pink mouth and white teeth. A plastic packing band was deeply embedded in his neck. Baby seals love to play with packing bands—they often poke their heads in, get stuck, and grow into the bands until they are lacerated or strangled. It's assumed most die before they are ever found.
Chelsea Kovalcsik, a graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the group's disentanglement coordinator, snipped the band. The little seal used his first free breaths to roar back at his former captors, then galumphed—much faster now—over to his clan and disappeared into the brown mass.
"We're out here in the middle of winter—snowdrifts, blizzards," said Dallas Roberts, one of the noose-bearers. "But that feeling you get when you accomplish a disentanglement makes up for all of that."
"Imagine how he felt at that moment," said the sentinel in charge, Paul Melovidov.
Roberts and Melovidov were born and raised here on St. Paul Island, a volcanic outcrop in the middle of the Bering Sea, some 770 miles from Anchorage. They work for their tribe, the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, in the Ecosystem Conservation Office (ECO). They keep watch on the fur seals that breed on the Pribilof Islands—counting them, tagging the pups, disentangling them, watching for trespassers on the federally protected rookeries, and helping with subsistence harvests of seals. (Since the US government ended its commercial fur seal harvest in 1984, only Aleuts are allowed to kill them.) Some Aleuts pack the flippers in salt to make a long-lasting delicacy called lusta. Others like seal roasted with gravy and garnished with onions and poochki, the wild celery that grows on the island.
ST. PAUL, THE LARGEST of the Pribilof Islands, is 43 square miles of rolling, grassy tundra. It is treeless, windy, dense with flowers, and—in spring and summer—surrounded by a moat of seals. Neat rows of government-built houses poke straight out of the tall grass overlooking the harbor. Nobody mows here except the city manager, who is from California. The town of St. Paul may look sleepy, but the day I arrived, nobody would talk to me because they were recuperating from a big dance the night before that had started at midnight. So that first day, I walked out on the dunes instead. All around me, white bones jutted from the black sand. Millions of fur seals had been killed here for their pelts, first by Russians in the 18th century, then by the US Department of Commerce.
Melovidov remembers when, 40 years ago, seals carpeted the beach and the black bluffs were packed with nesting birds: kittiwakes, puffins, murres, cormorants.
Like all St. Paul Aleuts of a certain age, Melovidov, 61, was born as a ward of the federal government. Until the United States shut down its seal harvest, government agents controlled the Aleuts' lives, dictating where they could live and when they could leave the island. Melovidov worked as a ripper, pulling skins from up to 2,000 seals each day. Like other St. Paul Aleuts, he was paid a pittance for doing so.
Melovidov's current work as ECO's island sentinel coordinator embodies St. Paul's transition to a research economy. The sentinels, all Aleuts, survey birds, count animal die-offs and marine mammal strandings, clean up marine debris, and keep rats away. They sample water, fish, and invertebrates. They count harbor seals on the nearby uninhabited islands, survey the eroding bluffs, educate hunters, and pull wildlife out of oil spills. They are involved in so many outside research projects that I stopped keeping track. During the pandemic, their efforts became especially critical to off-island researchers who couldn't fly in to do fieldwork themselves. Recently, ECO has begun expanding a database of observations from Native communities across Alaska and Western Canada, a project they call the Indigenous Sentinels Network.
Despite all the effort, the number of birds and seals visiting St. Paul has been declining since the 1950s. Melovidov remembers when, 40 years ago, seals carpeted the beach and the black bluffs were packed with nesting birds: kittiwakes, puffins, murres, cormorants. "There were thousands and thousands of birds flying in every direction," he said.
Fur seals are among the best-studied marine mammals on the planet, with pelt-profit-driven data collection reaching back over 100 years. But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) cannot say definitively why they continue to decline in numbers decades after the commercial hunt ended, after becoming less lucrative. Alaska's waters are among the world's fastest warming, but that probably isn't the only factor. Everyone I talked with on St. Paul believed the seals were starving. "It's pretty obvious. If it's not climate change, it's our fishing industry," Melovidov said. "The combination is not helpful."
So in December 2021, the tribal government of St. Paul applied for the creation of a national marine sanctuary around the entire Pribilof archipelago. The idea for a marine sanctuary in the area was not without precedent: St. George, the next-door island, proposed one in 2016, though that effort seems to have fizzled. If created, Alagum Kanuux (which means "heart of the ocean" in Unangam Tunuu, the Aleut language) would be the first marine sanctuary in Alaskan waters. It could include a huge swath of ocean; the initial application called for a boundary of 100 nautical miles.
In June 2022, NOAA added Alagum Kanuux to its list of potential sanctuaries. If created as the tribe envisions it, the sanctuary will be the first of its kind in another way—the tribe would comanage it on equal footing with the federal government. On St. Paul, people call the initiative PRIME, short for the Pribilof Islands Marine Ecosystem.
The Biden administration's official policy is to bring more Indigenous people into natural resource management, but the Aleuts know how fleeting a political window can be. "We are storming through it!" said Marissa Merculieff, a St. Paul Aleut who is leading the push for the sanctuary. "Our species need help and need it quickly. But we just refuse to do it in any other way than comanagement."
Kushin loved the freedom and safety she felt growing up on St. Paul. She wanted to raise her own kids, someday, to forage and run free and harvest seals.
Alagum Kanuux is one of five marine sanctuaries proposed by Indigenous groups that are currently in progress; others are in waters off California, New York, and the Northern Mariana Islands. Each sanctuary has a unique history, politics, and legal setup. Out of all the applicants, only the St. Paul Aleuts are a federally recognized tribe. But the organizers still have a lot in common: historical exploitation and trauma; tricky fish politics. In the Pacific, they even share populations of humpback whales, which know nothing of the imaginary lines humans draw.
Angelo Villagomez, a Guam-born Chamorro Northern Marianas Islander, wrote the Northern Marianas proposal. He began to reach out to the other Indigenous sanctuary organizers in early 2022, in part because the fishery sector in the Northern Marianas had made his life miserable by spreading rumors that a sanctuary would restrict local fishing (it would not). Today they share notes and support one another. Formally, they call themselves the Indigenous Oceans Solidarity Alliance. Privately, they sometimes refer to the group as the Ocean Avengers (Villagomez is a huge Marvel fan).
The first Indigenous-led sanctuary nomination came from the Northern Chumash Tribal Council, which is behind the proposed Chumash Heritage Marine Sanctuary in California. Violet Sage Walker, a council chair, shared her experiences with NOAA's dreaded five-year review of that nomination with the alliance. "We're kind of the icebreakers," Sage Walker said, "going through the first time."
Merculieff feels the same way about St. Paul's initiative. "We're doing something big that could set the stage for all tribes across the country and how they comanage," she said. "Pretty much the whole world has tasked Indigenous people to step up and address the issue that we didn't create—which is climate change."
NOAA estimates that for a marine sanctuary, the average time from nomination to designation is three to five years, in part because the process is designed to be community-led. As PRIME works its way through NOAA's complex approval process, tribal members like Merculieff are working to build support among Pribilovians and the larger Bering Sea community.
Sanctuaries always have opponents, and commercial fishing is usually among them. While Alagum Kanuux's precise boundaries aren't yet established, the sanctuary would be smack in the middle of one of the world's biggest fisheries. Every McDonald's Filet-O-Fish sandwich sold in the US is made with pollock caught in the Bering Sea—mostly in the waters around the Pribilofs. NOAA asserts that the pollock fisheries are sustainably managed—and McDonald's boasts about this in the marketing copy on its website. ("We're putting in this effort so that future generations can continue to enjoy the Filet-O-Fish . . . forever.") Pollock is America's biggest fishery by volume, and in 2019, Bering Sea trawlers' catch fetched $1.55 billion wholesale. Highly consolidated and mainly controlled by out-of-state owners, the pollock sector exerts a whale-size influence on both the area's small communities and its regulator, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC).
That's why, despite how central pollock are to fur seals, Aleuts, and everyone else in the Bering Sea, the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island tribe deliberately excluded fisheries management in PRIME. The NPFMC, with its zero Indigenous members, would stay in control. "It was a political decision," Merculieff said. "We didn't want to spend the next decade arguing about fishing management and who gets to set the quotas."
The tribes of St. Paul and neighboring St. George—if its residents wanted in—could meet with the fishing industry and state and federal regulators to hash out their fish issues and send a consensus-based recommendation, wrapped in a bow, to the NPFMC—which would, in this ideal vision, just adopt it. This would satisfy St. Paul's desire for comanagement, since it would participate as a sovereign nation. Tribal president Amos Philemonoff described their approach as "setting the lunch table instead of being the lunch."
If PRIME does result in new fishing restrictions, it might ultimately improve local fishing. Hawai'i's Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument does not allow fishing inside monument boundaries, and a study published in Nature Communications found this has had little if any effect on the fishing industry. Sage Walker told me she wished she could call the proposed Chumash sanctuary an "ocean park" to avoid the bad rep the word sanctuary has acquired in some circles. "Fish love sanctuaries, is basically what it boils down to."
INCONVENIENTLY, NORTHERN FUR SEALS may be competing with pollock fishermen for fish. One theory about why fur seal numbers are dwindling is that both seals and trawlers target big schools of fish, and trawl nets break up the schools and force the seals to work harder. What is certain is that St. Paul females have been leaving their pups for longer foraging trips, and those pups are growing more slowly than pups elsewhere in the Pribilofs. Seal pups have to get fat enough in their first few months to live through two full years at sea as juveniles, before they are big and strong and know how to do seal stuff. "If they can't swim against a current—because they just don't have a lot of energy, because they weren't able to be nursed very often, because the mom had a hard time finding food—they're going to die at sea," said Lauren Divine, director of ECO.
There are other possible reasons for the reduction in seal numbers—disease, entanglements, pollutants, and reproduction problems—yet food stress "makes sense," said Rod Towell, a longtime mathematical statistician for NOAA. "But the bar to get from correlation to causation is huge," he added. People on St. Paul find this reluctance on the part of NOAA researchers to nail down what's wrong with the seals frustrating. "You can't just take everything from the ocean and expect them to still exist," said Julianna Bourdukofsky, who works for the Aleut tribe as a justice navigator.
Halibut fisherman Simeon Swetzof Jr., a St. Paul Aleut and longtime presence at NPFMC meetings, has spent years feeling outgunned by the Bering Sea's big fishing fleets, which scoop up halibut and crab as bycatch. If the local tribes could persuade the pollock boats to fish farther out from shore at certain times of the year and to reduce bycatch, birds and seals—and local fishermen—wouldn't have to work as hard to feed themselves, even if fishing quotas didn't change. In Swetzof's living room, we were surrounded by beachcombed walrus tusks and glass buoys, ivory carvings, and a view of St. Paul's harbor and the vast blue sea beyond it. "How long will it take before we don't see any fur seals anymore?" he asked.
St. Paul Aleuts and the pollock industry do have one thing in common: the fear that fur seal numbers will decline to the point where the seals are listed as federally endangered under the Endangered Species Act. That would restrict both commercial and subsistence fishing and could threaten the island's food security. Recently, Merculieff and other tribal officials got wind of a potential attempt by the Center for Biological Diversity to list fur seals. They told the organization that it wasn't their place to do so. "We are part of the fur seals," they told the center. "You cannot just list the fur seals and expect that we will continue to survive." But the threat of an endangered species listing also gives Merculieff hope, because it could inspire the pollock sector to come to the table on the sanctuary proposal.
Merculieff sees PRIME as key to the island's economic survival. Like many St. Paul Aleuts, she lives on the mainland for most of the year (at the last count, only 350 of the tribe's 1,800 members live on the island full-time). But every summer, she brings her three kids from Virginia to hunt reindeer, fish halibut, and help harvest the seals. The island draws people back, "almost like a bloom," she said.
St. Paul's remoteness makes living here challenging. The island is dogged by thick fog. It has no ferry service. The only regular passenger flight starts at $1,100 round-trip (with a federal subsidy), is so unreliable that it can take a week to leave, and often turns around if the good-weather window closes. With jobs scarce and the cost of living staggeringly high, some families are moving away for good.
Most people who remain work for a few major employers: the Aleut tribe; Tanadgusix, the local Alaska Native village corporation; the City of St. Paul; and the Trident fish-processing plant. Eighty-five percent of the city's revenue last year came from the sales tax on crab processed at the Trident plant, but crab stocks have since crashed, possibly due to warming ocean waters. Meanwhile, the tribe's responsibilities have grown. In addition to ECO, it runs the only store, the only bar, a tribal court, educational programs, and various social services.
Tourism is limited to a few dozen people who pay thousands of dollars each to see the tufted puffins and crested auklets; the birders' van goes from bird spot to seal spot but spends little time in town. A sanctuary, and the public and private dollars and national attention that would come with it, as Merculieff sees it, would help the tribe beef up its research facilities, build out its ecotourism industry, and explore mariculture like kelp farming.
But it's hard to overstate how deep resentment toward the federal government—and NOAA in particular—runs on the island. When Noah Oppenheim, a consultant working with the tribe, went on local radio in St. Paul to talk about the sanctuary proposal, he was interrupted by an elder who heard "NOAA" instead of "Noah" and stormed down to the station in his pajamas to give the Feds a piece of his mind (the two wound up having a long, lively discussion on air).
The St. Paul tribe already comanages its subsistence seal harvest with the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of NOAA. But a marine sanctuary would be a much bigger collaboration between St. Paul's tribal government and the federal government. The same federal government that had once told the Aleuts who they could marry. The same government that, during World War II, forced the Aleuts off St. Paul in a single night and interned them in a derelict cannery for years, only flying men back each summer to keep killing seals. The same government that decided in the 1950s that it could slaughter thousands of female seals without affecting the total population (not true). Very few federal employees know these stories, but all the Aleuts do. "They've never tried to repair the relationship," Merculieff said. "We're constantly having to recite our history."
ZINAIDA MELOVIDOV, KNOWN AS KOOKA Z (a riff on kukax, or "grandma"), likes to be in the thick of things, so I was invited to dinner shortly after I arrived. Inside, her small home was packed: walls of photos, a cabinet with Russian dolls and murre eggs, two chest freezers dedicated to halibut and seal, thick tobacco smoke, a friendly cat with a polar bear's coat, and enough food for a crowd. Kooka Z, at the head of her kitchen table, kissed me like I was a daughter and taught me how to say something naughty in Aleut to my husband—she's one of the few fluent speakers of Unangam Tunuu.
Over halibut pie (fish, rice, bacon, egg, tall golden crust) and pastry canapés piled high with mossberries from the tundra, she told me about the government days. They were more lively in some ways, she said—the town had coffee shops, a jukebox, movie theaters, and a baseball team called the Knock Down and Skin 'Ems. But she wasn't allowed to enter the tennis courts, go to teachers' houses, or speak her language at school. She hates tidying up because of how government agents used to inspect her home. As a child, she found little ways to rebel, like spitting tobacco behind the school radiator.
Though the government killed thousands of fur seals every year for their pelts, officials forbade the Aleuts from hunting pups for food. They did it anyway, in secret. They ate the meat in the dark with blankets over the windows and burned the bones in the coal stove so they wouldn't be found in the trash. On Kooka Z's wall were two big black-and-white photos of rookeries packed with seals, dated 1946; she stole them from the government people when they left the island. "My store—my Walmart and Safeway," she called the rookeries. As we talked, a stream of people stopped by to say hello. She teased them, asked about their mothers, and demanded that they show up for Beer Thirty on Friday.
Kooka Z's granddaughter, Destiny Bristol Kushin, 18, showed me murre eggs that she had blown out: They were twice the size of chicken eggs and speckled in mint-chip colors. Normally, residents would be scrambling the bluffs to collect them, but not this year. Everyone was worried about the murres, which, along with other seabirds in the area, have recently had huge, unexplained reproduction failures. The bluffs at Southwest Point were full of birds—noisy with their Muppet laughs, fish-fragrant with their stink—but bare of eggs, and earlier I saw a murre so skinny that its breastbone stuck out. The cause could be lack of food, though habitat loss might also play a role. Some of the nesting bluffs were falling off the island, perhaps because the sea ice was retreating and leaving winter storms to bash the island. There were other bad signs: fewer mossberries, scarcer halibut. And the fur seals' raucous din no longer filled the town at night. "I miss hearing that," Kooka Z said. Their declines made her think of the book of Revelations.
At the seal harvests, Kushin had learned one job after another since she was little. She gathered berries and poochkis from the tundra, Chinese hat snails and sea urchins from tidepools. She took seal meat and mossberries to the Mt. Edgecombe boarding school in Sitka, where many St. Paul kids go for high school.
Kushin loved the freedom and safety she felt growing up on St. Paul. She wanted to raise her own kids, someday, to forage and run free and harvest seals. "They say it's a dying tradition," she said. "I'm going to try my hardest to not let it die out." Maybe she'd teach, if that was what was needed. But she was open to possibility. "I could see myself as mayor," she said.
THAT SUMMER, THE FEDERAL WINDS seemed to turn in PRIME's favor. The St. Paul Aleuts worked with NOAA on a memorandum of understanding that would set out the "high-level principles" of comanagement and acknowledge the federal government's constitutional responsibility to ensure that the tribe continued to exist. John Armor, the director of NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, said that agency lawyers were still grappling with how to do power-sharing with tribal communities, but the instructions from the top were clear: "We need to get better at engaging tribes and Indigenous communities," he said. "From a sanctuary standpoint, we're 100 percent in lockstep with that."
The winds of state approval were less certain. The Alaskan government couldn't block PRIME, but it could prevent it from including state waters. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang, appointed by the Trump-affiliated Republican governor, Mike Dunleavy, described himself as "open-minded" when we talked, but added that he didn't see the point of a sanctuary. "Right now, we don't see what those clear benefits are," he said, while expressing various concerns about Alagum Kanuux: its potential size, whether it would restrict fishing, and whether it was even legally permissible to carve out any more of Alaska's land and waters for federal protection.
ECO staff told me they were busy quashing rumors that the sanctuary would restrict locals from fishing. But often, the locals I talked to hadn't heard of Alagum Kanuux or PRIME, or they were worried a sanctuary might fail to be protective enough or might be too dominated by fishing interests. "Profit and the economy need to be secondary," said Johnney Fratis, an out-of-work local fisherman living on federal fisheries relief funds. He didn't know much about PRIME, but he felt strongly that the survival of his people and the fur seals were linked.
Every person I talked to about fur seals was worried about them. "Our ecosystem is out of balance," said Jason Bourdukofsky, the chief operating officer of the local Alaska Native village corporation. As we talked, Bourdukofsky walked me through the island's museum, which took up a few rooms of a grand house where the US government fur seal agent had once lived. There were bone cutters and pelt pullers and a ladies' hat—a perfect 1960s confection made from diaphanous seal throat and velvety seal fur.
IN JULY, VINCENT-LANG and top officials from NOAA and the State of Alaska were scheduled to fly to St. Paul to discuss the comanagement agreement and to participate in a town hall meeting about it. Merculieff saw the visit as an opportunity to educate officials on the realities of St. Paul, to educate islanders about the sanctuary, and to lay rumors to rest. But the week before, St. Paul city manager Phil Zavadil wrote to the federal and state VIPs, telling them the town hall violated the island's COVID protocols—even though all the participants had agreed to the island's four-day quarantine and were to meet masked and out-of-doors. The manager did this without talking to the St. Paul Aleut tribal government first. When I stopped by city hall to meet Zavadil, he declined to explain.
Merculieff was discouraged by the city's apparent sabotage. "I can't fight against my own people," she said. Her breast cancer had recently shown up again. While she was full of verve and keeping it at bay, it had clarified her priorities. She would step back from PRIME and take a six-month sabbatical in New Zealand to work on a Maori river-comanagement plan. It was a project that wouldn't break her heart.
Meanwhile, the Aleut tribal government doubled down on community outreach. It held a bonfire for local kids to talk about the future and gave out spaghetti dinners at the store as a way to survey residents on issues like fishing and the economy. A few months later, Merculieff learned that representatives of one of the area's biggest fishing operations had written an "amazing" letter to NOAA. They were open to discussing the sanctuary, saying it appeared not to interfere with fisheries management. "This is huge!" she said, once again buoyed.
ON A COLD, MISTY August Day, the ECO office was aswish with rain gear and buzzing with high spirits: There were just enough volunteers to put on a seal harvest. Six trucks rolled onto the green tundra, just behind a rookery beach. The harvest happens before female seals show up for the year, and targets the bachelors, most of which will never mate anyway.
Paul Melovidov and a few others disappeared over the tundra's edge and returned driving a small group of seals, which were swiftly dispatched, then organized neatly on the grass for butchering and sampling. Every one of the 40 or so people present played a role. The smallest children schlepped things for the adults and watched, entranced, as island sentinels and ECO staff broke down the seal carcasses.
Chelsea Kovalcsik ran the research sampling like a soccer coach, loud and enthusiastic, checking that each person felt able to do their job. Many researchers wanted a piece of this pinniped pie, so Kovalcsik pressed all the interns, plus two guys who had just showed up at ECO to teach an audiovisual camp, into service. Somebody needed blubber samples; somebody else wanted a liver and a kidney; Kovalcsik herself needed the guts because she was starting a master's project surveying the effects of harmful algal blooms on northern fur seals. The samples were gathered in endless ziplock bags and labeled scrupulously.
Marissa Merculieff's four-year-old, Kayux, walked around proudly holding a blood clot. Merculieff told me she had done the same as a child—it keeps your hands warm. Around us, the seal meat was being packaged and loaded into the trucks for distribution to the island's elders. One was Kooka Z. When I'd visited, she had told me she was looking forward to filling her freezer.
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