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Remote Alaska community hopes for harbor upgrade, high-speed catamaran

Jim PaulinDutch Harbor Fisherman

The Pribilof Island community of St. George hopes that harbor improvements and high-speed catamaran ferry service to a bigger island 40 miles away will help provide jobs and reasons for young people to stay, according to Mayor Pat Pletnikoff.

The twin-hull boat would transport passengers and cargo to St. Paul six months of the year when fog rolls in between May and October and keeps planes from flying into the airport, Pletnikoff said. 

Catamaran service from St. George to St. Paul could begin as early as next year, Pletnikoff said. The twin-hull design would provide increased stability in the often-rough waters, he said. With a top speed of 25 knots, the boat could make the trip in about two hours, faster and more comfortably than a four- to five-hour trip in a fishing boat, he said.

The difficult aviation environment can be both inconvenient and unhealthy, as a Coast Guard news release from July 2003 demonstrates:

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“Friday evening the Coast Guard received a request for assistance with a medivac from Aeromed Services. Poor visibility and rolling fog on St. George Island was preventing their aircraft from completing a medevac of a 72-year-old man who had sustained a hip fracture. Factors at the St. George clinic required the patient be moved as soon as possible. Weather continued to cause problems and delays when a Coast Guard C-130 from Kodiak attempted to recover the patient. A Coast Guard Jayhawk helicopter from Kodiak was fi nally able to pick up the man on Saturday and transfer him to an awaiting Aeromed jet in Cold Bay. Aeromed further medevaced him to Anchorage.”

Peninsula Airways flies 30-seat Saabs into St. George -- weather permitting -- and on Monday, Pletnikoff said fl ights hadn’t landed for days due to foul weather.

Flying into the larger Pribilof island of St. Paul is easier because of flatter terrain. The mayor estimated a 58-foot catamaran’s cost at about $500,000, in funding from the city and the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Community Development Association, and perhaps the state. Since the state operates ferry service elsewhere in Alaska, it shouldn’t exclude the Bering Sea, he said.

St. George has a graying population of 110, with younger people leaving because of a lack of jobs. Pletnikoff said the village doesn’t want to imitate Nikolski, with population decline leading to the school’s closing a few years ago. St. George annually struggles to maintain a minimum school enrollment of 10 students, he said.

Now things are looking up, with $2.5 million in state funds from the legislature for the harbor project and another $3 million if voters approve a statewide bond package in November. Earlier work stopped in 1995, when the state economy declined and the harbor was not completed, Pletnikoff said. The harbor is now unprotected from winds from the south that send huge waves crashing directly into the harbor.

The harbor is essential for community development and “until that happens, there is no economy,” Pletnikoff said.

Pletnikoff foresees the harbor supporting a commercial fishing fleet harvesting halibut, black cod, Pacific cod, and crab, and a local processing plant.  And don’t worry, Unalaska and Akutan, he said, St. George isn’t interested in pollock, which would be too big of an operation.

“We just want to take care of ourselves, and make a living,” he said.

St. George is also seeking federal designation as a “harbor of refuge” for maritime rescues and environmental response with the anticipated increase in Bering Sea shipping traffic, the mayor said. 

Alaska Department of Transportation coastal engineer Ruth Carter said a feasibility study is moving forward under the leadership of the new project manager, Wolfgang Junge. 

The state DOT has already held one community meeting in St. George, with another planned for June 11, said Carter, who has been working on the potential harbor project with coastal engineer Harvey Smith. 

The harbor construction project would likely cost at least $30 million, she said.

This article was originally published in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is reprinted here with permission.