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Bridging Troubled Waters: What the Aleut Community is Doing to Restore Health to the Bering Sea

The Aleut Community of St. Paul Island (ACSPI) is a federally recognized tribe of more than 1,800 enrolled members from St. Paul Island, the largest of the five Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea and about 300 miles from the Alaska mainland.

This rural Indigenous community is historically and culturally tied to the ecosystem of the Bering Sea, home to large numbers of mammals, birds, shellfish, and at least 419 species of fish. “We rely on our home and our animals – our neighbors – completely for our food, our jobs, our culture, our lives,” Gregory B. Fratis, an ACSPI tribal member, explains in a video on the tribe’s website. The video was created to provide an overview of the recent efforts centered on restoring the health of the Pribilof Islands marine ecosystem.

Commercial fishing in the Bering Sea is big business. It is federally managed by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, and jointly managed internationally by the International Pacific Halibut Commission, with Canada sharing in overall halibut quota.

Dr. Lauren Divine is the director of the Ecosystem Conservation Office for the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island.

However, the ACSPI’s local halibut fishery is experiencing some rough seas. “The management of different fish has become really inequitable in the last decade,” says Dr. Lauren Divine, director of the tribe’s Ecosystem Conservation Office. ACSPI’s small 30-boat halibut longline fishing operation out of St. Paul Island is being threatened by extraction of halibut as bycatch in larger-scale, industrial fishing vessels, a problem compounded by the bureaucracy of reduced quotas of halibut the fishery is allowed to catch.

But with support from First Nations Development Institute, ACSPI aims to level the fishing field and provide more equitable access for its fishermen to Bering Sea resources by bringing more Indigenous voices and Indigenous and traditional knowledge to the fishery management process. “We need a seat at the table, where conversations are being had and decisions are being made and quotas are being set,” says Dr. Divine. “ACSPI needs to be where people with authority are discussing and weighing the price of culture.”

Dr. Divine says that without Indigenous representation at the fishery management council meetings, it is easy for governing bodies to make decisions without any concern for the impact on the 229 tribal governments and Indigenous coastal communities across Alaska. “With the funding from First Nations, we will continue building and strengthening our existing tribal coalition.”

And it all centers around the halibut.

The halibut – and crab – problem

According to Dr. Divine, the Aleut (or Unangan) people got “thrown into” commercial fishing for Pacific halibut when the U.S. government withdrew its commercial harvesting of fur seal pelts from the St. Paul Island in 1984. “They told the community that they could no longer have an economy based on laaqudan, or northern fur seal harvests (for pelt export to foreign markets), and that they would have to become fishermen.”

ACSPI rose to the challenge and has based its economy on fishing ever since. In addition to commercial fishing, Unangan rely on subsistence fishing to help fight food insecurity that comes from being a small remote island community.

Aleut fishermen make a living catching halibut in the Bering Sea and help feed about 400 Unangan on St. Paul Island.

Fishermen only catch halibut for subsistence when they go commercial fishing, and bringing back halibut for families on the island – delivering the catch door to door – provides critical food security. There are about 400 Unangan living on St. Paul Island who are provided for by about 15 vessels; one fishing trip may bring enough halibut to provide for 30 families.

As important as halibut fishing is to the community, it has become a hardship for local fishermen. The large, industrial fishing trawlers on the hunt for other species of fish are catching halibut as a “bycatch,” meaning the halibut is not targeted, but is still scooped up in the miles-long nets anyway.

When the entire catch comes to the surface, the weight and pressure of hundreds of thousands of tons of fish is consequential. “The halibut get crushed by the other fish and die, and then are thrown overboard because they aren’t the type of fish the commercial boat is after,” Dr. Divine explains how this vital seafood is unnecessarily wasted. Even if retained as “prohibited species catch,” the halibut cannot be sold. This practice, she says, has been playing out for a long time and has devastated the abundance of halibut, forcing ACSPI and other small communities to bear the burden of conservation.

Not only are fishermen not able to earn income for utilities, mortgage, fuel and groceries, but families are also left without halibut from subsistence fishing in the freezer for the winter. “It’s a double hit for the community,” states Dr. Divine.

A flounder takes a swimming break on top of a rock in the Bering Sea, off the coast of St. Paul Island.

Sadly, the reduced time out on the water and diminished fishing quotas are taking a mental toll on the fishermen, as well. “They’re experiencing a loss of self-pride and confidence. Being out on the boat and fishing is a direct way to connect to the ecosystem and pass on their traditional fishing practices to their families. It is a cultural and spiritual loss for them,” Dr. Divine shares what the fishermen have told her.

Halibut aren’t the only fish in short supply in the Bering Sea. For the first time in state history, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game recently canceled the winter snow crab season in the Bering Sea due to the “mysterious” disappearance of more than one billion crabs over two years ― a 90% drop in the crab population, according to CBS News. This fishery shutdown also affects red king crab and blue king crab, which inhabit the Bering Sea, as well.

“These species are managed by the federal and state governments and provide huge commercial industries for the United States, and they have completely crashed,” says Dr. Divine, pointing to climate change, which has melted ice in the Bering Sea, as one of the culprits. “We are really seeing some devastating changes to our ecosystem.”

How First Nations is helping

In 2022, First Nations awarded $50,000 each to seven Native organizations in Bering Sea communities ― including ACSPI ― through its “Protecting Bering Sea Marine Resources” project. The purpose of the funding is “to address the depletion of marine resources needed to sustain their communities and people.”

ACSPI is using its funds to indigenize the fishery management process by strengthening Indigenous voices around Bering Sea resource conservation. “We want Council members to see the value of enduring Indigenous and traditional knowledge systems,” says Dr. Divine. “We want to create real ways to get that knowledge into a system that is western science-driven. Ones that lead to more cautious management, so decisions aren’t made solely based on numbers and dollar signs.”

Dr. Divine works closely with a colleague on several ecological initiatives at the tribe’s Ecosystem Conservation Office.

To accomplish this bold initiative, the tribe is strengthening an interdisciplinary coalition of Alaska Native traditional and Indigenous knowledge holders, natural and social scientists, and resource managers to develop an Indigenous conceptual model (ICM) through workshops, focus groups, and interviews. “The ICM will inform the processes of management and research of Bering Sea resources,” explains Dr. Divine.

A further goal is to literally get a seat at the table. “We have requested two tribal voting seats on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, where Alaska Native Tribes have always been disenfranchised, excluded, and minimized.” Dr. Divine says the council was set up by the federal government and seats are appointed by the governor of Alaska, with seats allocated for federal and state agencies, and voting seats for the states of Washington and Oregon.

The council holds five 10-day meetings a year and ACSPI wants to see Indigenous participation in every working body under that council. “There are motions and actions at the council level that can really start to change the way decisions are made,” says Dr. Divine.

These proposed actions are some tangible ways that ACSPI can chip away at the monolith that is fishery management in the Bering Sea, says Dr. Divine. “These governing bodies are just too large to fight individually, and we are grateful to First Nations for helping us build that capacity.”

Hope for the future

The Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, stewards of the lands and waters of the Bering Sea for many generations, is going all in to protect its tribal home, economy, and natural resources. “We have always been part of this ecosystem and now we feel the responsibility to act,” states Fratis.

In addition to the short-term goals outlined above, ACSPI is working on establishing a national marine sanctuary called “Alaĝum Kanuux̂: Heart of the Ocean.” It will be co-governed with the Tribal Government of St. George community and bring area-based conservation to the Eastern Bering Sea. In June 2022, the Pribilof Islands Marine Ecosystem (PRIME) Initiative was accepted by the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries’ (ONMS) Inventory of Successful Nominations. The tribe awaits the next steps.

Bottom line, says Dr. Divine, everything the tribe does moving forward is about preserving for future generations the environment, marine life, and sea waters surrounding the island. The mother of three from Savannah, Georgia, who has called Alaska home for 11 years, makes it clear: “Simply put, we just want a healthy ecosystem. Seven generations from now, when we’re all ancestors, we want to ensure that our ecosystem is still being used, enjoyed, and managed in a healthy way by the community that is still to come.”

While fur seals abound on St. Paul Island, the Unangan people were prohibited by the U.S. government in 1984 from basing their economy on the harvesting of fur seal pelts.