Seal hunting regulations on St. Paul Island show a new path for federal marine mammal protection

seal pups
Seal pups on St. Paul Island. (Photo courtesy of Justine Kibbe)

Last month marked the 50th anniversary of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the conservation law that prohibits the killing of marine mammals. It does have an exception for Alaska Native people, and the federal government now works with tribes to co-manage animals for subsistence use.

On St. Paul Island there’s a model for how this kind of partnership might guide Alaska’s marine mammals – and the people who depend on them – through dramatic climate shifts.

The Aleut Community of St. Paul Island Tribal Government has a partnership with federal scientists at NOAA Fisheries to manage Steller sea lion and fur seal populations.

“It’s actually just gotten better as the years go,” said Aaron Lestenkof, a local hunter who works for the tribe. “And we have weekly meetings with them. And, you know, try to keep up to date on things happening here.”

Lestenkof is an Island Sentinel—a tribal member who monitors hunting and stranded marine mammals on the island, among other duties. Federal biologists work only seasonally on the island, but Sentinels are there year round.

Lestenkoff says the changing climate has made fur seals more available over the last decade. They used to leave St. Paul in winter, but he says now some of them stay on the island over winter due to climate change. The tribe worked with the federal government to update local regulations so hunters could take advantage of the longer seal season. That’s important because the changing climate means a decrease or even a crash in other subsistence foods, like halibut and crabs, respectively.

Lauren Divine is the director of the ecosystem office for the Tribal government on St. Paul. She says the federal regulation change was a milestone. Now the tribe runs a research project on northern fur seals.

“We’re leading as a Tribal government, rather than kind of supplementing something that NOAA is doing,” she said. “This is something that addresses our Tribal member concerns, and is led and funded by our Tribal government.”

She says federal management needs to do more to keep up with climate change, but recent co-management decisions have given her hope for the future.

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