Can a marine sanctuary save this small Alaska Native community in the Pribilof Islands? Locals think so

Jun 7, 2022

By Lilly Bock-Brownstein

Facing severe impacts of climate change, the community of St. Paul is working to preserve its culture, livelihood, and ecosystem through a proposal to protect Alaĝum Kanuux̂, the “Heart of the Ocean”

Aerial photograph of island coast with birds flying
Image courtesy of Aaron Lestenkof

In the middle of the Bering Sea in Alaska, over 200 miles north of the Aleutian Islands, the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island is calling on the federal government to work with them to protect the marine ecosystem as a designated national marine sanctuary. The Pribilof Islands, which include St. Paul and St. George along with two smaller islands, have a population of around 500, most of whom are Unangan, or Aleut.

To the residents of the Pribilof Islands, the marine ecosystem is deeply tied to their cultural, spiritual, and economic livelihoods. While the ecosystem has long been stewarded by the community, the Pribilof Islands Marine Ecosystem (PRIME) Initiative aims to add new protections by designating the area a national marine sanctuary, and establishing a co-governance model to manage the area with a combination of traditional knowledge and Western science.

Map of small islands in the middle of the Bering Sea in Alaska
The Pribilof Islands of St. Paul and St. George are located in the Bering Sea, about 200 miles north of the Aleutian Island chain.

Destiny Bristol Kushin grew up on St. Paul and remembers fishing with her dad as a child and collecting seabird eggs with other members of the community in the summer. As a teenager, she worked with St. Paul’s Ecosystem Conservation Office to collect tissue samples from fur seals to assess changes in health from year to year. In a conversation with the Center for Western Priorities (CWP), Bristol Kushin shared, “I figured out that I liked marine biology from living on St. Paul. My aunt introduced me to that field and I really enjoy it and know I get to help my people and the environment.” She recently graduated from high school and plans to study at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau and return to St. Paul with even greater skills to help her community.

houses and church in small town on the ocean
The Aleut Community of St. Paul Island. Image courtesy of Heather McFarland.

Amos Philemonoff is the President of the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island and has been a commercial fisherman for 42 years.

“I see the PRIME Initiative as something that can give us a stronger voice in the management of the ecosystem around the islands and bring a tribal voice to the relationship with the government through a co-management regime. I think it’s time for a change in how things are done with Tribes when it comes to land and ocean conservation, it’s time to lean more on Indigenous traditional knowledge.” — Amos Philemonoff, President of the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island

According to Philemonoff, the proposed sanctuary would not shut down any fisheries, but instead seeks to find a balance between commercial fishing and conservation.

A functional ecosystem is essential for the economic stability of the community, which is 85% dependent on tax revenue from fisheries, according to Philemonoff. Climate change, overfishing, rising costs of food and fuel, and fishery shutdowns due to COVID-19 are having rippling effects on the health of the ecosystem, which ultimately impacts the community that relies on it. A recent drop in the snow crab population has created a snowball effect that in some cases may convince families to move away.

Emigration from the already modest human population threatens the future existence of the communities in the Pribilof Islands. “Our community is totally dependent on fisheries, and right now we’re losing revenue and people are moving away,” said Philemonoff. “We can’t get to that breaking point where our community just breaks apart and falls into oblivion, which is I think where we’re heading if we don’t get something that will help control the declines of the species we rely on in the Bering Sea.”

Ecologically, the tundra-covered islands and their surrounding ocean are an important feeding and breeding area for migratory seabirds, fur seals, sea lions, harbor seals, whales, halibut, and snow crab. The ecosystem is an important breeding and feeding ground for over half the world’s population of fur seals and is an overwintering habitat for sea birds including king, spectacled, and common eiders.

The geography and oceanography create a uniquely productive Arctic sub-ecosystem, which is highly sensitive to the impact of climate change. Climate change is causing the waters to rapidly warm and become saltier. On top of that, an increase in severe storms, which were once buffered by sea ice, is causing erosion from the islands into the ocean.

The Pribilof Islands are an important breeding and feeding ground for fur seals, among other species. Image courtesy of the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island.

Meanwhile, species from lower latitudes are moving north with the warming waters and are outcompeting native species. According to Lauren Divine, Director for the Ecosystem Conservation Office in St. Paul, these changes are impacting the entire food web from the phytoplankton and zooplankton to marine mammals and sea birds.

“The positioning of the Pribilofs, the oceanography of the area, all of these different things come together to create a little sub-ecosystem within the Bering Sea that makes it very productive,” Divine explained. “Because of how high it is in the world between the sub-Arctic and Arctic, it is experiencing really rapid and dramatic climate change. What used to be a very cold ecosystem is now warming.”

Climate change has rippling effects in the ecosystem, impacting the sea birds that rely on fish as a food source. Image courtesy of the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island.

Divine fell in love with the Pribilof Islands when she visited as an intern in 2012, and now works on the PRIME Initiative team. She believes that designating the area as an ecologically important area that is worth evaluating for conservation and management is a crucial first step.

“It opens up a conversation where all the users of the Bering Sea — all the people that are earning their livelihoods and income, gaining food for their families, finding joy in the ecosystem, those that have an interest in the migratory species that are in our waters some of the time–everyone can come together and lend their knowledge and expertise and talk about what needs to happen to save this ecosystem,” Divine said in a conversation with CWP. “This is a clear path toward breaking down walls, bringing everyone together, and figuring out how to solve these really big, real, observed issues effectively.”

These ongoing conversations between the communities of St. Paul and St. George led to a national marine sanctuary nomination for a co-managed marine protected area around the Pribilof Islands called Alaĝum Kanuux (Heart of the Ocean). In December 2021, the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island officially launched the PRIME Initiative with the announcement of a nomination to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office of National Marine Sanctuaries to designate a co-managed marine area that addresses conservation concerns, while ensuring the sustainability of commercial fisheries and local economies. On June 8, 2022, the proposal was accepted to the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries Inventory of Successful Nominations.

The proposed marine sanctuary is intended to lay the groundwork for greater self-determination, as well as provide necessary protections for the delicate marine ecosystem and the species that depend on it. This approach represents a new model for Tribal co-management, Indigenous-led research, and sustainable economic development. Protecting the area will require collaboration between local entities, commercial fishing and support industries, as well as the U.S. Coast Guard and conservation groups.

Image courtesy of the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island.

When asked what greater protections for the marine ecosystem could mean for the St. Paul community, Bristol Kushin responded, “Right now our population is slowly declining. People don’t feel a connection, children are losing a connection with nature. People are losing hope that St. Paul can continue to be a community in the future, with species loss, climate change. There’s nothing we can reassure them with if there’s no protection for our animals or for us as people.” Bristol Kushin is hopeful that the community is able to continue the cultural traditions that she cherishes from growing up on the island in order to maintain a sense of connection to the natural environment, saying, “I want my kids to grow up how I grew up.”

Now that the proposal has been accepted to NOAA’s Inventory of Successful Marine Sanctuary Proposals, there will be an extensive public participation process and a full environmental review as a final step before designation consideration. The exact boundary of the marine sanctuary will be determined during the designation process.

Image courtesy of Veronica Padula

If designated by the Biden administration, this co-managed marine sanctuary would be the first of its kind in Alaska, and the first established on the basis of government-to-government consultation between the United States and a federally recognized Tribal Nation. The proposed governance structure of the marine sanctuary will create a forum for Alaska Native communities to voice concerns about coastal management. The entity that manages the PRIME area would include seats for the tribal governments of St. Paul and St. George, the State of Alaska, and the federal government.

“This new approach to national marine sanctuaries is a major precedent for all Indigenous communities and businesses throughout our country as well as the conservation of the resources we have always depended on,” said Dune Lankard, president of the Native Conservancy in Alaska“Indigenous people of this continent have successfully managed large seascapes and marine resource dependent economies for 10,000 years. When our communities and businesses are provided a genuine role in policy making, we can expect to see meaningful results that mirror this legacy for the good of all communities.”

Shortly after being sworn into office, President Biden signed a memorandum on Tribal Consultation and Strengthening Nation-to-Nation Relationships, stating, “It is a priority of my administration to make respect for Tribal sovereignty and self-governance, commitment to fulfilling Federal trust and treaty responsibilities to Tribal Nations, and regular, meaningful, and robust consultation with Tribal Nations cornerstones of Federal Indian policy.” The president’s order also speaks to the urgent need to honor commitments to Tribal Nations as the country faces public health, the economy, racial justice, and climate change crises that disproportionately harm Native Americans and Alaska Natives.

Image courtesy of Aaron Lestenkof

“History demonstrates that we best serve Native American people when Tribal governments are empowered to lead their communities, and when Federal officials speak with and listen to Tribal leaders in formulating Federal policy that affects Tribal Nations,” the memorandum states.

President Biden also signed an Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad that tasks federal agencies with submitting a report identifying steps the federal government, Tribal Nations, state and local governments, agricultural producers and commercial fishers can take to achieve the goal of protecting 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030, known as the 30×30 goal.

The ensuing Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful report specifically calls for honoring Tribal sovereignty and supporting the priorities of Tribal Nations, supporting locally led and locally designed conservation efforts, using science as a guide, and pursuing a collaborative and inclusive approach to conservation.

With these guiding principles in mind, the Biden administration should listen to the voices of the community as they are calling for increased protections for their delicate marine ecosystem and the livelihoods of their members who depend on it.

Image courtesy of the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island

“Once this process is complete, we will not just be at the table — we will have built the table,” wrote Marissa Merculieff, the director of the Office of Justice and Governance Administration for the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island Tribal Government in an opinion piece in the Seattle Times“Our community self-identifies as ‘People of the Seal,’ and we know that if the seals aren’t here, we won’t be either.”

As Philemonoff said, “I just love where I live in the Bering Sea in Alaska, and that’s where I want to be. I’d just like to be able to know when I go that if my family wants to be able to do what I did, they can. And people for generations beyond my lifetime can continue to sustain themselves in the Bering Sea on St. Paul and call that beautiful island home.”