St. Paul government declares emergency in attempt to get ahead of looming crab crash

St. Paul
The small island government of St. Paul is expecting a roughly $2.7 million loss in revenue from the collapsed crab fishery next year in 2023. (Ethan Candyfire/KUCB contributor)

The recent closure of the Bering Sea snow crab and Bristol Bay red king crab fisheries has some of Western Alaska’s coastal towns taking a hard look at their futures, and one small island is bracing for a huge hit.

The Pribilof Island of St. Paul runs on snow crab — also known as opilio crab. The community’s Trident Seafoods is one of the largest crab processing plants in the world. So when fisheries management officials announced the species “overfished” and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game shut down snow crab for the first time in the fishery’s history in October, City Manager Phillip Zavadil knew the community needed to act fast.

“We’re trying to get creative and have people understand that this is going to happen more and more, and that we need to address it,” Zavadil said. “We can do something now, instead of waiting for next year, when we don’t have any funding or we can’t provide services.”

About two weeks after ADF&G’s closure announcement, the city declared a cultural, economic and social emergency. At a meeting on Oct. 26, the St. Paul City Council voted unanimously in support of the emergency resolution, which identifies and anticipates effects of climate change on the island’s subsistence and commercial fisheries, and the subsequent impacts the closure of crab fisheries will likely have on the community of around 350 people.

Fish and Game biologists said 2021 brought the largest crash in snow crab ever seen. And while the disappearance is somewhat of a mystery, many researchers point to climate change as the likely culprit.

Rather than just reach out to state and federal representatives for help, which the municipal government has done, Zavadil said officials crafted the emergency resolution, which they hope will help soften anticipated blows caused by the crash in crab stocks.

“Outside of requesting a fisheries disaster, we decided to do a disaster declaration as you would do in a natural or manmade disaster,” he said.

The small island government is expecting a roughly $2.7 million loss in revenue next year. That includes a 90% drop in state-shared tax revenue, from $1.5 million to $200,000. And in direct city tax revenue, St. Paul expects to see a 100% drop.

Community organizations like Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association and Tanadgusix Corporation, the local Native corporation, are also expecting big hits. Both estimate revenue reductions of over 90% from last year.

The Aleut Community of St. Paul Tribal Government estimated a roughly $670,000 loss from last year’s snow crab harvest reduction, according to the city’s disaster request letter. For the coming year, the Tribal government expects losses closer to $1 million.

These losses in revenue will threaten the city’s ability to maintain certain critical municipal services such as public safety, electrical grids, fresh water and sewer systems, roads and access to fuel for heating, according to the emergency declaration.

The resolution is an attempt to communicate those losses, but Zavadil said it’s unique in its approach. While it’s like a natural disaster declaration, it anticipates rather than responds to an emergency and the negative impacts it could have on things like critical infrastructure.

We’re trying to be proactive, rather than reactive,” he said. “Knowing that this is going to happen, what can we do to kind of mitigate those effects before it does happen?”

The emergency declaration is likely the only one of its kind in the island’s history, he said. It outlines the expected economic losses, St. Paul’s vulnerability to climate change, as well as the remote island’s historic reliance on the snow crab harvest, especially as the community shifted away from the commercial harvesting of fur seals in the 1980s.

While many people were expecting the Bristol Bay red king crab closure, Elder Jacob Merculief, a longtime resident, subsistence fisher and the Mayor of St. Paul, said when he first heard that both fisheries would close this season, he was stunned.

“The first thing that hit my mind, I said, ‘oh, no, what are we gonna do?’” he said.

He’s worried about the ripple effects the shutdowns will have. He expects drops in school funding as families consider leaving the island, a loss of public safety services, reductions in city employee hours, and a rise in various island-wide taxes. Looking forward, he said the view is pretty grim.

“Hopefully, it doesn’t carry on for too many years,” Merculief said. “I think this year, we do have some savings set aside that will help a little bit. But if it carries on for two, three or four years, we’re going to be hurting pretty bad.”

Gov. Mike Dunleavy and Rep. Mary Peltola requested federal disaster declarations for the closure of the two crab fisheries last month. In a letter to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Dunleavy said the shutdowns will cause a loss of around $287 million in Alaska’s seafood landings.

St. Paul city officials also sent a request for a fisheries disaster declaration to Dunleavy, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and other state and federal authorities.

Zavadil said the island’s cultural, economic and social emergency declaration is meant to help those government officials see how important this remote community is to other parts of the nation.

We’re feeding the world and the nation with crab and halibut and salmon,” he said. “That needs to be recognized — how important that is — and the contributions that our communities make to that.”

Ultimately, he hopes the emergency resolution provides an example for other small coastal Alaska communities that are also struggling. The role of “teacher” is integral to the island’s identity, he said.

“The traditional name that they gave the island is Tanax̂ Amix̂, which is land to mother’s brother,” Zavadil said.

He said the traditional role of the uncle – or mother’s brother – was to provide an example and teach children things like survival skills.

“We’re still there to kind of provide that guidance and say, ‘hey, you guys can do this too. We can do this together,’” Zavadil said. “As I look at St. Paul’s history, in a number of different situations, we’ve kind of been that amix̂ or mother’s brother to other Aleutian communities, in setting examples: what you could do to help the survival of your community, the sustainability of the community.”

Generally, it takes about two to five years for fisheries relief funding to get to communities, according to Zavadil. He hopes the city’s efforts can help speed that process up.

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