I was raised in a halibut fishing family on St. Paul Island, 300 miles off the coast of Alaska in the middle of the Bering Sea. We’re a small community of less than 400. Most of us are Unangan, or Aleut. You might know our island from seeing fishermen on the popular television show “Deadliest Catch” unloading crab in our harbor or from the recent special report in The Seattle Times by reporter Hal Bernton.
You might be familiar with our fur seal beaches, some of the densest aggregations of marine mammals left on the planet. What you might not know is that we’re working on something big on St. Paul, something that would allow our people to have a lead role in the modern management of the ocean waters we have stewarded since long before the U.S. federal government and state of Alaska existed.
Unangax̂ culture, economies and food security are inextricably tied to the health of our ecosystem and its resources, which hold deep historical and cultural significance for our people as a source of subsistence and tradition. The seal harvests I participated in each summer growing up gave us all a sense of ceremony and deep appreciation for marine animals and all life. Our community self-identifies as “People of the Seal,” and we know that if the seals aren’t here, we won’t be either.
These resources were historically managed for profit and extractive enterprise. The people of the Pribilofs have been “managed” by colonial masters, too. Our ancestors were brought to the islands as slaves for the Russian fur-seal industry in the 1800s, a legacy of forced labor and indentured servitude that lasted well into the 20th century. Our traumatic history as a people is tied to others’ financial gain from the fur-seal harvest, first for the benefit of Russian profiteers and then the U.S. government, which treated us as “wards of the state” providing cheap labor for decades.
Rather than being paid fair wages for harvesting fur seals and processing fur pelts, Unangan were paid in meager food rations that consisted of canned goods and totally lacking of any fresh products. Once a week, Unangan were “allowed” to hunt or fish for subsistence foods.
To me, this much is clear: It is time to ensure that our tribes, as federally recognized sovereign governments, have a legitimate and coequal governance role in the management of the ocean waters around our islands.
In December 2021, the St. Paul Tribal Government announced The Pribilof Islands Marine Ecosystem (PRIME) Initiative. Our proposal represents a new model for tribal comanagement, Indigenous-led research and sustainable economic development. By designating an ocean area for comanagement — managed cooperatively by federal, state and tribal governments — we will incorporate Indigenous knowledge with Western science to safeguard the ecosystem and enable sustainable economic activity that is resilient to climate change. In the spirit of partnership, collaboration and shared prosperity, we are committed to pursuing inclusive management policies, including working through the established commercial fishery management system.
The National Marine Sanctuary boundary will be determined during the designation process. The area encompassing 100 nautical miles around the inhabited islands of St. Paul and St. George, which takes the shape of a large peanut, represents the Pribilof Islands Marine Ecosystem, which traditional knowledge and Western science identify as uniquely important and as providing the nutrition for the entirety of the food web that inhabits the Pribilof Islands, from zooplankton to marine mammals and seabirds.
We are not proposing to alter quotas for commercial harvests of these species. Indeed, we are not proposing to create any new authorities to manage commercial fisheries under the sanctuary program at all; that will continue to be the purview of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. What we do intend is for a new advisory process to be established with tribes, stakeholders and agencies to come together to make recommendations about management improvements in this important place.
Once this process is complete, we will not just be at the table — we will have built the table.
Our efforts are well aligned with key Biden-Harris administration priorities: To support tribal nations and other Indigenous groups and to develop new approaches to comanagement with tribal nations. The leaders of St. Paul have a responsibility to conserve the ocean and its resources while providing opportunities for economic growth and diversification to safeguard our community’s future. Other leaders in Alaska and the broader region have a responsibility to work with us as we advance our self-determination.
Now is the time to implement this new collaborative comanagement model. To effectively comanage our natural resources and provide economic opportunities, Unangax̂ communities must regain our rightful leadership role. We urge all leaders and stakeholders to come together and help us make this innovative vision a reality.
Aniqdun ngiin aqaaĝan aĝnangin qulingiin akux̂ gumalgakux̂. (For the coming generations that we don’t see yet, for their time here.)