Fifty years ago, Patrick Pletnikoff spent his summers cutting fat off dead seals during Alaska’s yearly harvest. He competed with other young men to show who had the fastest knife.
Today, he is fighting to protect the small remaining population of seals. He is hoping to create Alaska’s first marine sanctuary in the nearby waters. The creation of a protected area would give native people the power to limit fishing of the seals’ prey – the fish the seals eat.
Commercial seal hunting was once the economic driver of St. George, a small island far from the Alaskan mainland. But the native Unangan community has struggled to find a new trade in the years since hunting seals was banned. There are now less than 60 people left on the island.
Pletnikoff is 73 years old. He is the island’s long-serving mayor. He has spent years pushing the federal government to add St. George as a U.S. marine sanctuary. He hopes such an act would start a new "conservation economy" on the island, one that is based on environmental tourism, scientific research and responsible fishing.
"It could be a new beginning," Pletnikoff said of his plan for the island. St. George and nearby St. Paul are sometimes called the "Galapagos of the north" for their rich wildlife in the northern Pacific.
Pletnikoff said he has a responsibility “to our environment and the animal kingdom as well."
Generations of Unangan people worked in hard conditions in the seal trade. The trade was first run Russian explorers and then the U.S. government. But now the U.S. government is aiming to give local people more power over their land and water - including powers to control fishing.
U.S. President Joe Biden has promised to expand ocean protections as part of his efforts to fight climate change.
The National Marine Sanctuaries program is run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In April, Biden proposed a record $6.9 billion budget for NOAA. Money was promised for other water sanctuaries, such as Chumash Heritage sanctuary off California and Pennsylvania's Lake Erie Quadrangle.
Biden is working to keep native people in control over their own land. He is hoping to protect 30 percent of U.S. land and sea by 2030.
"More and more, federal officials are recognizing that tribes need to be more in the driving seat when it comes to land or environmental issues," said Raina Thiele. She heads Biden's Native American Policy Committee.
But the Bering Sea that surrounds St. George is one of the most successful fisheries in the world. The fishing industry says the area is already well controlled.
Gavin Gibbons is a spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute industry group. Taking fishing “away in an area with no scientifically based challenges is a solution in search of a problem," he said.
Since seal hunting has dropped, St. George's population has fallen by about 75 percent from its peak of 250 in the early 1960s.
The northern fur seal population has also dropped, says NOAA. On St. George and St. Paul, numbers have fallen to about 459,000 from 2.1 million in the 1950s. But on the Bogoslof Island to the south, the numbers have increased from almost no seals 30 years ago to about 161,000 today.
In December, Frontiers in Marine Science released a study about what and how much fur seals eat. Researchers found that fur seals likely eat large amounts of walleye pollock. The walleye pollock is a valuable fish for fishing companies.
Scientists do not know exactly how big of an effect fishing has on the seal population. But Pletnikoff saw the study as confirming his belief: large fishing boats are competing with seals to catch the animal’s prey.
Creating a sanctuary through NOAA could take many years. And St. George's proposal has few supporters in Alaska's state government or among its congressional members. There is no guarantee the plan will move forward any time soon.
But Pletnikoff hopes the sanctuary could mix modern science with native knowledge to find ways to protect seals and other wildlife from future problems.
"Generations of Unangan people … grew up with knowing nothing more than fur seals and seabirds – and knowing our environment," he said. "We don't want to see that destroyed."
I’m Dan Novak.
Matthew Green and Nathan Howard reported this story for Reuters. Dan Novak adapted it for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor. _______________________________________
Words in This Story
sanctuary — n. a place where someone or something is protected or given shelter
conservation — n. the protection of animals, plants, and natural resources
tourism — n. the activity of traveling to a place for pleasure
challenge — n. a difficult task or problem : something that is hard to do
in the driving seat / in the driver’s seat – idiom. in a position in which one is able to control what happens