- Title: The tiny Alaskan island fighting for fur seals, and a new future
- Date: 12th July 2021
- Summary: ST. GEORGE, ALASKA, UNITED STATES (MAY 2021) (REUTERS) WIDE OF REINDEER ST. GEORGE RESIDENT ALEXIS PROKOPIOF STANDING IN CEMETERY AMONG GRAVES VARIOUS OF GRAVES IN THE CEMETERY PROKOPIOF WIPING OVERGROWN GRASS FROM GRAVESTONE / READING THE NAME: "I never knew him. I wasn't even born when he passed away, 1930" COBWEBS ON WINDOW OF OLD DWELLING WIDE OF OLD DWELLING TATTERED CURTAIN OF OLD DWELLING BLOWING IN THE WIND WIDE OF BUILDINGS / RESIDENT WALKING PROKOPIOF WALKING IN CHURCH PROKOPIOF READING FROM BOOK ABOUT DETAILS OF RESIDENTS OF ST. GEORGE NIGHT SHOT OF COMMUNITY / BUILDINGS NIGHT SHOT OF COMMUNITY / BUILDINGS WITH ILLUMINATED CHURCH SEEN IN DISTANCE
- Embargoed: 26th July 2021 10:45
- Keywords: 30x30 Alaska's first marine sanctuary Galapagos of the north NOAA National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Patrick Pletnikoff St. George Island climate change environmental protections
- Location: ST GEORGE ISLAND & ALEUTIAN ISLANDS & ANCHORAGE, ALASKA, UNITED STATES
- City: ST GEORGE ISLAND & ALEUTIAN ISLANDS & ANCHORAGE, ALASKA, UNITED STATES
- Country: USA
- Topics: Environment,United States,Editors' Choice
- Reuters ID: LVA006ELKESLJ
- Aspect Ratio: 16:9
- Story Text: If Patrick Pletnikoff had been the kind of mayor to follow his head rather than his heart, then he might have long since abandoned his dwindling community on St George Island, a fog-shrouded spec hundreds of miles off the coast of Alaska.
But lately, Pletnikoff has dared to hope that his long-cherished vision for reviving St. George's moribund economy, and the fortunes of its globally significant colonies of northern fur seals, might now have a fighting chance of success.
With President Joe Biden pledging to protect 30% of U.S. land and sea by 2030, Pletnikoff is lobbying the federal government to designate Alaska's first marine sanctuary around St. George, which would place the island on a par with celebrated reserves in the Florida Keys or California's Monterey Bay.
Acknowledging St. George's importance in this way could unlock a new "conservation economy" based on eco-tourism, sustainable fishing, and field trips by scientists studying the stark impacts of climate change in the Bering Sea, the mayor argues.
"Marine sanctuaries are very significant," Pletnikoff, 73, said of his plan for St. George, which along with its northerly neighbour St Paul is known as the "Galapagos of the north" for its abundance of seals, seabirds and stellar sea lions.
"And we believe in order to preserve the value of what people refer to as the 'Galapagos of the north', we need to have a designation, something that will allow protection and something that will allow us to preserve and have a voice in that decision-making process."
A sanctuary could also help right historic wrongs, advocates say. For the first time since a Russian sloop, St. George made landfall in 1786 by following seals swimming to their breeding grounds through the fog, control of the waters around the island would move into indigenous Unangan hands.
But for all the enthusiasm, the hurdles Pletnikoff faces underscore the kinds of challenges small communities the world over can face in turning headline-grabbing conservation targets into meaningful protections.
With St. George's population down to about 50 people, few of whom have jobs, some doubt that tourism will be enough to defibrillate the economy - particularly given the risks visitors run of being stranded when mist grounds flights.
And the fishing industry is also wary. Sceptics fear that creating a sanctuary would complicate the management of the Bering Sea, which boasts some of the richest and most rigorously monitored industrial trawling grounds in the world.
Beset by violent storms and a constant, corrosive sea breeze, St. George's steady decline is etched into the dilapidated state of its houses, their forlorn timber facades a contrast to the immaculate green onion dome of the Russian Orthodox church, a legacy of early Russian settlers.
Nearby, sheer thousand-foot cliffs provide nesting sites for the bulk of the world's population of Red-Legged Kittiwakes. Auklets, Puffins and Guillemots also call St. George home, indifferent to the island's lack of a single tree.
But it is the northern fur seals performing lazy barrel rolls in the bracing surf, or playfully grappling each other with their flippers, that have shaped the three-by-twelve-mile island's destiny like no other species.
Dominated by the sealing industry for almost two centuries, run first by Russian traders and later the U.S. federal government, St George has struggled to find a new path since the commercial harvest was banned on its rookeries in the 1970s.
These days, islanders look back with a mix of nostalgia for the much larger and more youthful community sealing once supported, and anger at the industry's systematic exploitation of generations of Unangan workers, who toiled in conditions akin to indentured labour until the 1960s.
A popular folk song evokes memories of their tribulations in its title: "Slaves of the Harvest."
In direct counterpoint to St. George's oppressive past, the marine sanctuary programme, run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), aims to give local communities a much bigger say over activities such as fishing, tourism or cargo traffic in designated waters.
On St. George, supporters believe a sanctuary would enable them to limit the numbers of industrial boats sailing up from Seattle and other northwestern ports to trawl for walleye pollack within its planned 40-mile diameter.
Although scientists are still trying to establish the main factors driving declines in northern fur seals on St. George and S.t Paul since the 1970s, many islanders are convinced that vessels trawling within clear sight of the shore are placing pressure on the animals.
"You can watch these guys going back and forth out there scooping everything up," said Laurance Prokopiof, who said he gave up running his small fishing boat when the catch began to dwindle a decade ago, and now works for the town council.
"The sanctuary would be the big bonus because we'd have this 40-mile buffer around us," he said.
After years of watching former U.S. President Donald Trump roll back environmental protections, Pletnikoff found renewed hope in January when Biden issued an executive order to increase the proportion of protected U.S. land and sea to 30% by 2030 - a target known internationally as "30x30."
That should have been the reason for Pletnikoff to celebrate. But with NOAA's resources limited, it is unclear whether his plan - which lacks a champion in Congress or Alaska's state government - will be treated as a priority relative to other proposed sanctuaries in places such as Santa Barbara in California and the Pacific Ocean's Mariana Trench.
Nevertheless, environmental justice advocates say that Biden's emphasis on the value of indigenous stewardship in protecting wildlife could weigh in Pletnikoff's favour.
Despite the change in tone at the federal level, others in Washington DC are wary of new marine protections.
Fishing industry lobbyists would prefer the waters off St. George to remain under the jurisdiction of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, a federal body that sets quotas in discussion with scientists, fishermen, Alaskan communities and state officials.
And far greater disruption may be in store from a source that no sanctuary can prevent: climate change.
With Bering Sea winter sea ice shrinking to its lowest level in millennia and marine heatwaves coinciding with mysterious die-offs of puffins and other seabirds, rising temperatures are playing havoc with ecosystems.
Pletnikoff, who partly paid his way through college by spending summers stripping blubber off seal carcasses, believes that combining indigenous knowledge with modern science could be the best hope of protecting St. George's furred, feathered and flippered inhabitants from the challenges ahead.
"Generations of Unangan people, including my younger brothers and sisters, grew up knowing nothing more than fur seals and seabirds - and knowing our environment," he said. "We don't want to see that destroyed."
(Production: Nathan Howard/Matthew Green/Matt Stock)
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