Rural Alaska

Bering Sea village wants to surround itself with a marine sanctuary

Residents of the smaller of two villages in the Pribilof Islands are asking the federal government to encircle their island with the first national marine sanctuary in Alaska. It's an effort to protect the fur seals once slaughtered on the Pribilofs and other animal populations they say are plunging dangerously, perhaps because of climate change.

The request from the city of St. George is only the second in the state since the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries began accepting sanctuary nominations from the public in 2014.

The request, received Oct. 1, may not lead to a sanctuary designation, a process involving years of analysis and significant public engagement, said William Douros, West Coast regional director for the agency, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The agency last year quickly rejected a petition from conservation groups seeking a giant sanctuary in waters along the Aleutian Islands, a proposal that lacked the support of local community entities, such as tribal or city governments, Douros said.

This request from St. George is different, because it comes from the local community, and because it seeks a much smaller area of protection.

"It is certainly different in scale and scope and obviously has an immediate connection to the community," Douros said.

The ecologically rich Pribilof Islands, including neighboring St. Paul, are the largest breeding grounds for the northern fur seal. Among other wildlife, they also support a broad population of cliff-nesting and migratory seabirds that has helped earn the islands the nickname, "the Galapagos of the North."

The region also helps support commercial Bering Sea fisheries that are among the most lucrative in the world.

Douros said Friday that the agency had not received letters of opposition to the petition.

The proposal calls for a sanctuary 30 miles around the island, except for the section north of the island toward St. Paul, where the boundary would shrink to 20 miles.

The proposed southern boundary includes a portion of the giant Pribilof Canyon, which provides valuable habitat for deep-sea coral, sponge and fish, according to St. George city.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who has voiced fears that President Obama will unilaterally turn the on-land Arctic National Wildlife Refuge into a national monument before he leaves office in late January, supports St. George undertaking a preservation process that it believes is in its best interest, her office said.

Opponents of a monument at ANWR say it would end all hope of development there. Sanctuaries are more permissive, with site-specific restrictions rooted in stakeholder input that can still permit commercial activity, officials said.

Murkowski, Alaska's senior senator who is up for re-election this year, wants to learn more about the potential impact of a sanctuary at St. George, according to a message from Murkowski spokeswoman Karina Petersen.

"While she supports community-driven processes, she still would like to examine the facts, speak with locals and organizations in St. George, the fishermen who would be impacted, and those involved in the decision-making," Petersen said.

In July, the St. George city council unanimously decided to pursue the request, said Mayor Pat Pletnikoff, who submitted the petition on behalf of the city.

After seeing wildlife population decline for decades, the Aleut community of about 100 is in "grave jeopardy" of losing animals that have long supported the economy and subsistence hunting, the petition notes.

A designation around the 35-square-mile island, about 750 miles northwest of Anchorage, would "provide crucial protection to one of the most productive marine ecosystems anywhere in the world," and thus to the community that depends on those animals, it says.

"The waters around St. George and the Bering Sea face multiple stresses and additional threats are on the horizon as climate change progresses, sea ice recedes and international commercial interest in the Arctic grows," the petition notes.

The city would call the sanctuary the St. George Unangan Heritage National Marine Sanctuary. Unangan is the indigenous name for the people from the Aleutian region, who were called Aleut by Russians. The Russians forcibly brought Aleuts to the Pribilofs beginning in the late 18th century to hunt and process the huge fur seal population.

The petition includes support letters from several organizations, including Audubon Alaska, the Alaska Native Science Commission and the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council.

Pletnikoff said he recognizes people will have concerns about activities that might be curtailed if a sanctuary is approved. But he said the creation of a sanctuary is an inclusive, public process that can provide protection in concert with commercial fishing or any other type of  development, including oil and gas production.

"We have the God-given right to speak out when we notice significant changes in our environment," he said.

Villagers used to enjoy watching thousands and thousands of seabirds each morning and evening fly between ocean feeding-grounds and nests behind the village, he said. That no longer occurs.

"Something is happening to them," he said.

The neighboring community at St. Paul is heavily dependent on halibut commercial fishing and the local Trident seafood processing plant, said longtime city clerk Phyllis Swetzof.

St. Paul, home to about 450 residents, is concerned about the "frightening" decline in wildlife.

The islands once supported 2 million fur seals in the 1960s, she said. As a teenager then, Swetzof remembers rookeries so coated with seals that it wasn't possible to see the rocks they rested on.

"Now, there are lots and lots of lots of bare rocks with no seals on them," Swetzof said.

She said St. Paul tries to strike a balance between economic development and protecting the marine life that supports the village. Residents will want to know more about the effect of a sanctuary around St. George, she said.

"The words sanctuary and refuge make us cautious," she said.

Pletnifkoff said the proposed sanctuary is really a St. George issue, though the community will work with its neighbor and other groups during the process.

He said if the surrounding waters become a sanctuary, benefits include increased attention to research and community involvement in future management efforts.

St. George, also home to commercial halibut fishermen, is concerned about protecting the economy, he said. The petition calls for a buffer zone around St. George's harbor to allow for expansion and increased activity.

Proposed management plans and restrictions at sanctuaries are developed by the sanctuary agency after comment from residents, industry officials, conservation groups and others, a long process that also includes an environmental impact statement allowing more chance for the public to speak, said Douros, interviewed Friday from his regional headquarters in Monterey, California.

"There can be zones set up not allowing certain activities, or zones where certain activity is allowed," he said. "There can be broad restrictions, like no oil and gas development, or restrictions with multiple exceptions," such as no seabed-disturbance except for anchoring vessels, fishing and harbor repair.

Douros said those are examples of restrictions developed for sanctuaries in the Lower 48, and not regulations being considered in Alaska.

"We aren't thinking of regulations," he said. "We are just looking at the nomination."

The first steps are determining if the petition is sufficient, a process that is currently underway, and later, whether St. George's petition should join others around the country under consideration for designation.

The petition cites potential, multiple threats to St. George's animals.

"Everyone points to climate change, or the warming of the Bering Sea or food stress perhaps, but it's all speculative at this point," Pletnikoff said.

"We don't know what's going on," he said. "But we know we have to do something."

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or alex@adn.com.

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