ST. PAUL, Alaska — The Trident Seafoods plant tucked inside this island’s small port is the largest snow crab processor in the nation.
On a cold clear day in January, three Trident workers, within the hold of the Seattle-based Pinnacle, grabbed bunches of the shellfish, and placed them in an enormous brailer basket for their brief trip across a dock. The crab were fed into a hopper to be butchered, cooked, brined and frozen.
Few of the 360 people who live on St. Paul, largest of the four Pribilof Islands, have opted to work in the plant. Instead jobs are filled with recruits from elsewhere.
But the plant still remains a financial underpinning of this Aleut community. Trident pays taxes that help bankroll the expansive services of a city government, which rents apartments, leases construction equipment and even provides plumbers and electricians to make repairs.
This year, the snow crab harvest dropped nearly 90% in a body blow to the city’s budget and to its efforts to keep people from moving away.
City officials estimate the decline in the snow crab harvest, along with the cancellation of the 2021 fall king crab harvest, will result in a loss of $3.25 million in tax revenue. That amount is equal to nearly half of this year’s budget, so city officials in 2023 will have to decide what services to maintain and what they might have to cut back or give up.
“It’s going to be really, really tough,” said Ray Melovidov, a City Council member. “The last thing we want to do is reduce people’s hours and reduce their income.”
The crab that generate tax money do best in a frigid bottom layer of water — known as the cold pool — that winter sea ice helps to create. Federal surveys found snow crab stocks collapsed in the aftermath of two warm years, 2018-19, when the annual winter ice pack shrank, and the cold pools that offer crab protection from cod and other predators were drastically reduced.
The warming has been linked by scientists to climate change driven by the release of greenhouse gases by fossil fuel combustion and other human activities.
“Record low Bering Sea sea ice in 2018 had profound regional impacts. According to climate models, human-caused warming was an overwhelmingly likely contributor, and such low levels will likely be typical by the 2040s,” stated a study by Rick Thoman, of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and other researchers published in a January 2020 supplement to the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.
This year, colder weather and northern winds have helped push the winter ice across a much broader expanse of the Bering Sea that included a dramatic, late-March surge south to the Pribilof Islands.
That is an encouraging sign for the near future. But on St. Paul, the snow crab crash has escalated broader Aleut concerns about the marine life of the Bering Sea amid long-term warming trends.
Aleuts lead a St. Paul-based fishing association that participates in the harvests and uses its earnings to assist island residents. They have fought to conserve halibut stocks for local fishermen.
Then, there are tribal leaders who are alarmed by declines in populations of northern fur seals and seabird die-offs. They are pushing for a greater involvement in federal research and more say in how the fisheries around the Pribilofs are managed.
“My overarching goal is to be a bigger voice,” said Amos Philemonoff, tribal president of the Aleut Community of St. Paul.
Troubled history tied to fur seals
The northern fur seals formed the initial foundation of the Pribilof economy.
In the summer, they gather on St. Paul by the hundreds of thousands to breed, the dominant bulls sparring with one another as they await the return of the females.
In recent years, some young fur seals have lingered longer.
On a winter day of constant winds a group of the young fur seals — again and again — emerged from the waves that crashed onto the shores of St. Paul, the largest of five treeless volcanic islands that poke out of the sea some 300 miles west of the Alaska mainland.
The Aleuts’ history of their people indicates they visited these islands on occasion, but never inhabited them full time. That changed in the late 18th century, when Russians began to bring Aleuts to St. Paul and a second Pribilof Island, St. George, to hunt the fur seals for their pelts. These Aleuts, known as the Unangan, were subject to conditions of forced labor akin to slavery.
After the U.S. purchased Alaska from the Russians in 1867, the commercial harvests of the fur seals continued, amid increasing outrage from environmentalists. They ended in 1984. Since then, only subsistence hunts have been permitted, and St. Paul sought to forge an economy tied to the Bering Sea fish harvests.
In the early 1990s, that strategy gained momentum as annual snow crab harvests exploded for two consecutive years to record levels of more than 300 million pounds — more than 50 times the size of the greatly diminished quota for the 2022 season.
St. Paul’s population reached 760 people. All around the island, floating processors moored during the winter season. The Trident processing plant, then newly opened, offered employment opportunities. Meanwhile, local fishermen upgraded their fleet to expand halibut harvests in nearby waters.
“It was bustling. There was two, sometimes three, cab companies, a hotel in the center town, and a restaurant,” said Philemonoff, who in that era joined the crab fisheries for a 16-year career.
Today, that heyday is long gone. The hotel building sits empty, windows broken, and no taxis scoot around town.
But St. Paul still maintains a prosperity that has eluded many other Native communities in western Alaska.
Many residents work in city government or tribal operations such as the community clinic, food bank and health clinic. They also can find employment with a village corporation, which owns island acreage and operates several businesses, including a summer bird-watching tour that, before the COVID-19 pandemic, brought in visitors to see the “Galapagos of the north.”
Many of the homes are painted in bright hues of blue, green, red and pink that stair-step up the hills above the harbor. And late model pickups are parked in a lot of the driveways.
Yet St. Paul, despite these employment opportunities, has struggled to keep people. Since the early ’90s, the population has declined by more than half as many Aleuts choose to move, often to Alaska’s mainland.
The cost of living is one hurdle.
Hunting for fur seals and reindeer helps to stock many island freezers with meat. But imported groceries are pricey. A dozen eggs costs nearly $7 and a box of Frosted Flakes more than $9.
And some people tire of the isolation, which deepened during the first two years of the pandemic when the city government banned all but essential workers, such as the more than 160 seasonal workers who staff the crab plant, from coming to St. Paul. These ordinances also required all residents to isolate for seven days in their homes when they returned from off-island trips.
“That’s the nut to crack. What do we need to do to make sure people are happy and want to be here? What do we need to do to make people want to come if they don’t live here?” said Melovidov, the City Council member. “I think it’s complicated. I think other remote communities might be facing the same struggles.”
Melovidov, 39, grew up fishing for halibut in the summer with his father and hunting reindeer, and once thought he wanted to move off the island.
But in his first attempt at attending college in Anchorage he said he “failed miserably.” Back home, he gained a new commitment to the Pribilofs, and went back to the mainland to get a bachelor’s degree at the University of Alaska Anchorage with a degree in economics before returning to set down his roots in St. Paul and raise his family.
Melovidov’s Anchorage education was funded by the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association, one of six western Alaska “community development quota” groups vested by the federal government with shares of the Bering Sea halibut, crab, pollock and flatfish harvests.
This program was launched in 1992 through regulatory actions — and later expanded through federal legislation aimed at ensuring coastal Native communities of the Bering Sea were not cut out of fisheries dominated by fleets from other parts of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.
Through the years, the CDQ groups have purchased ownership stakes in shore plants, processing vessels and boats that harvest snow crab. The groups have emerged as powerful players in the North Pacific fisheries, and are required to invest their revenue in fisheries and other development efforts.
Today, Melovidov, in addition to his position on the City Council, serves as chief operating officer of the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association. His office is in a modest wood-frame building with a view of the harbor, where he helps manage revenue, largely generated by fishing operations, that last year topped $60 million.
Some of the revenue helps subsidize the cost of living in St. Paul. The association pays $2,000 in annual heating bills for island residents, and double that amount for elders.
The association also has helped to bolster the island halibut fishery by purchasing the harvest from the local fleet — caught with lines of baited hooks — and contracting with the Trident plant to process fish.
That fleet, however, has been hit with declines in harvest quotas, with the 2022 allocation 45% below 2011 levels.
This has stoked tensions with the Bering Sea bottom trawl fleets, which incidentally catch and then must discard halibut as they pursue flatfish. Some of those discarded halibut do not survive.
The Central Bering Sea Fishing Association joined with the tribal government in a long-running battle to reduce the trawlers’ incidental take of the halibut that culminated in a December vote by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to put tighter restrictions in place.
But the St. Paul-based association and the other CDQ groups also face more scrutiny of their own fishing boats, some of which have an incidental take of salmon while towing large nets through the sea to catch pollock.
The pollock harvest is the biggest volume fishery in North America at more than 1 million metric tons annually in the Bering Sea, producing fillets for fish sticks and fish sandwiches and many other products. Last year, the pollock fleet caught 13,783 Chinook and more than 530,600 chum salmon — prohibited species that under federal rules must either be donated to food banks or thrown overboard.
That salmon take outraged western Alaska tribal leaders who suffered major run failures in the Yukon and other rivers
In December, six tribal leaders petitioned the federal Commerce Department to impose a rule for zero Chinook bycatch and a hard cap on the take of chum.
“Our salmon runs and our communities are at the breaking point. We can’t risk the chance of high bycatch in these dire times,” said Brooke Woods of the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, in a written statement.
Imposing the ban on Chinook would have shut down this year’s pollock season, and was opposed by St. Paul’s Central Bering Sea Fishing Association and the other CDQ groups.
The St. Paul tribe signed on to the petition. Marissa Merculieff, director of the tribe, said this support was not about shutting down the pollock industry “but acknowledging that “something is wrong and the tribes need to start talking about it.”
In January, the petition was denied by the Commerce Department in a letter that stated poor runs of salmon in western Alaska are assumed to be related to the Bering Sea warming, and noted that the pollock fleet bycatch represented only 3% of the Chinook returns to those waterways.
Pollock harvests and fur seal decline
The failed quest to cap the salmon bycatch is part of a broader push by western Alaska tribal governments to gain a bigger voice in the conduct of the Bering Sea fisheries. On St. Paul, that effort has gained momentum from a decadeslong downturn in populations of eastern Bering Sea fur seals that gather on the island each summer to mate.
The Aleut Community of St. Paul seeks to halt that decline and also improve protection for the other marine mammals and seabirds. In December, the tribe proposed to the Commerce Department a new National Marine Sanctuary that would encompass a 100-mile perimeter around the Pribilofs.
If approved by the federal government the tribe would use science and Indigenous and local knowledge to identify “needed federal fishery management actions to help our fur seals, birds and communities,” according to a document the tribe distributed in December to explain the proposal.
Tribal President Philemonoff also sits on the board of the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association, a big island participant in the commercial fisheries. Throughout the years, the tribe and the association often have worked together closely, including in the development of a $15.1 million research center completed in 2021 that would be involved in the marine sanctuary studies.
Philemonoff has yet to persuade the Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association to endorse the proposal. Association officials are still trying to gain a better understanding of what the sanctuary might mean for their catch of pollock, also a prime food source for the fur seals.
“Their intentions might be to have the pollock fleet move around more if their goal is to help the fur seals. It’s still unclear. We’re trying to figure … how it might impact us,” Melovidov said.
The large-scale pollock fisheries began in the mid-20th century in an era when foreign fleets still dominated the harvests. In 1988, the northern fur seals’ population decline spurred the federal government to designate them as a depleted species. Then, in 1995, a new conservation zone was established that prohibited trawling, and later commercial crabbing, within an area that extends from 12 up to 80 miles from St. Paul.
But the fur seal population continued to shrink, and as of 2021 had dropped to more than 70% below the 1970s levels.
In a paper published last year in the Journal of Marine Science and Engineering, four scientists found a relationship between large summer harvests of pollock in the waters around the Pribilofs and reduced survival rates of fur seal pups. The authors wrote that the nets scatter the schools, then lactating female fur seals have a harder time finding the pollock and producing the milk they need to nourish their young.
In another study published this year in the same journal, Aleut tribal and Ocean Conservancy researchers found that more than 18% of the pollock caught during the summer harvest season was taken from within a 100-mile zone around the Pribilofs.
Under the sanctuary proposal, the tribe would establish an advisory group that would include fishing industry officials. This group could develop proposals for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council on how harvests could change to increase protection for fur seals and other species, according to a document submitted to the Commerce Department and tribal officials.
Philemonoff said the sanctuary proposal is not intended to hinder or limit the crab, pollock or other fishing fleets, but there may be ways they could do things differently.
“They are a super important part of our economy. To not let them fish is something that just can’t happen.”