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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

A tribe on the Pribilof islands in the Bering Sea, 300 miles off the west coast of Alaska, is trying a new approach to co-management. St. Paul has submitted a marine sanctuary nomination for an area 100 nautical miles around its island. It's taking care, though, to steer clear of the region’s multi-billion dollar fisheries industry.

The Aleut Community of St. Paul Island Tribal Government submitted its marine sanctuary nomination in December

The nomination highlights the Pribilof Island's unique ecosystem and the Unangan people’s close ties to the area. The nomination is entitled Alaĝum Kanuux̂ (Heart of the Ocean) Pribilof Islands Marine Ecosystem Initiative (PRIME).

Ocean bounty

North Pacific, sub-Arctic and Arctic waters are unusually rich with wildlife that live or migrate to northern seas to feed, give birth, and nest during summer months. Many migrate to the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea.

The Pribilof Islands are just 40 square miles in area, but have a giant role ecologically. Half the world’s population of northern fur seals and 3 million seabirds rely on the Pribilofs for rookeries and nesting. The surrounding waters are important habitat for bowhead and gray whales, walrus, orcas, and Steller sea lions.

They’re also commercial fishing grounds for pollock, cod, halibut, salmon and crab (as seen on the “World’s Deadliest Catch” TV series).

However, several animal populations are declining. The Northern fur seal, for instance, has dropped by more than two thirds, from some 2.1 million in the 1950s to 627,000 in 2019. Steller sea lions, certain seabirds, and other species are similarly affected. No single cause for the declines stands out but scientists believe climate change is a factor.

Unangan ties, co-management as equals

“As it has been for centuries, our cultures, economies, and food security on St. Paul and (its neighbor) St. George (island) are inextricably tied to the health of the animals, birds, fish – the overall ecosystem and everything within it,” St. Paul's nomination stated. It described the Unangan people as having “the most specialized and successful maritime hunter-gatherer traditions.” St. Paul has a population of 413 people, predominantly Unangan.

“The spectacular natural resources, cultural and historical significance and threats in the region warrant (marine sanctuary) designation and a comprehensive management approach centered on tribal co-management, Indigenous, traditional and local knowledge, and equitable representation,” the St. Paul nomination states.

One goal is to create and carry out governance between the St. Paul and the U.S. government “with equitable consensus-driven management decision-making authority and shared responsibilities for the co-management of Alaĝu Kanuux,” the nomination said.

Hands off the fisheries

Marissa Merculieff, Unangan, is director of the Office of Justice and Governance Administration for the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island. She spoke recently at an Oceans and Climate in Alaska webinar for journalists hosted by the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.

She said the tribe is reaching out to federal and state agencies, conservationists, and the private sector to be clear about their intentions.

One thing is certain, Merculieff said: marine sanctuary status does not mean the tribe will take on any kind of management of the area’s multi-billion dollar commercial fishing industry. She said they’re “really dousing the flames” on that idea. “We made that political decision to not fight over commercial fishing,” Merculieff said.

“We're not interested in commercial fishing management. We're interested in conservation measures, but ones that are built on collaboration of coming up with solutions and ideas together of how to meet the conservation needs without shutting out any type of fisheries, without doing something drastic, like an endangered species act listing.

“One of the major things that we are focused on trying to do through this is build a research economy” to make use of and add to existing research infrastructure, said Merculieff. Expanded tourism and recreation are other possibilities. Another hope is that sanctuary status and the new economy will bring broadband internet service to the two islands.

Fishing for crab in the Bering Sea 2008 (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Courtesy of Creative Commons)

‘Keep the door open’

Merculieff said the tribe is meeting with stakeholders early in the process to clarify any misinformation and to collaborate.

“We're trying to be transparent. We're trying to be open. Our only ask has been, ‘keep the door open, keep the dialogue going as we build this thing.’ It's not as scary as everyone thinks,” she said.

Amos Philemonoff, Unangan, is president of the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island and a lifelong commercial and subsistence halibut fisherman. In a prepared statement in December he said the tribe was gratified by the extensive support it has received from a range of tribal, nonprofit, business, conservation, and commercial fishing operations.

If the Office of Marine Sanctuaries approves St. Paul’s nomination it would be placed on an inventory for further development and review. Next steps would include a draft management plan, and a draft environmental impact statement that analyzes a range of alternatives, proposed regulations and proposed boundaries.

St. George further along

On the neighboring island of St. George, the city began the marine sanctuary designation process in 2017 when it submitted the St. George Unangan Heritage National Marine Sanctuary nomination. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last month determined the nomination would remain in its inventory of areas it may consider for designation. 

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3/16: This story was changed to narrow its focus to St. Paul's nomination because St. George reportedly is rethinking its submittal.

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