Proposed Bering Sea marine sanctuary draws pushback from fishing industry

northern fur seals
A group of St. Paul Island northern fur seals. (John Ryan/KUCB)

A proposed marine sanctuary in the Pribilof Islands has drawn major pushback from the commercial fishing industry, ever since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration accepted the nomination last June.

The Aleut Community of St. Paul — the tribal government for the Pribilof Island community of around 500 people — says the sanctuary designation would give it greater authority to protect the region’s vast ecosystems and resources, including rich fishing grounds and habitat for the federally protected northern fur seal.

The national marine sanctuary would be named Alaĝum Kanuux̂, or Heart of the Ocean — and if approved, it would be the first of its kind in Alaska, possibly creating a new precedent for resource management in the state.

Lauren Divine is the director for the tribe’s ecosystem conservation office. She said the sanctuary designation would make the tribe a co-manager for the region’s resources, which are currently managed by the State of Alaska and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

“That co-management aspect is really important because it’s a step towards self determination, sovereignty,” Divine said in an interview. “It really speaks to going back to Indigenous stewardship of lands and waters, which have operated successfully and sustainably since time immemorial.”

Divine also said the sanctuary would act as a spotlight, bringing tourism, research, and education dollars to the region.

NOAA accepted the tribe’s nomination last year, which set off panic bells in the commercial fishing industry. Many in the industry have voiced concerns that bringing in another co-manager could threaten the industry, even though NOAA and the tribe say the change would not affect fishing regulations.

Commercial fishing representatives railed against the proposed sanctuary during an April 6 meeting in Anchorage, which NOAA hosted to clear up confusion within the industry.

Todd Loomis is the director for Ocean Peace, a commercial fishing company that runs a half dozen catcher-processor boats in the area. After watching a presentation about the sanctuary nomination process, he told NOAA representatives that it was still confusing, and uncertainty was bad for business.

“I saw a lot of wiggle words in terms of the authorities, what applies and what doesn’t apply. And it did not provide any comfort,” said Loomis.

A big concern for opponents is the Alaska pollock fishery in the Bering Sea. It’s not only the largest fishery in the region; it’s the largest in the United States. NOAA valued the 2021 fishery at about $383 million.

Dennis Robinson is the president of the Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska, where he is also the city’s vice mayor. He’s concerned the proposal will threaten a fishery that NOAA touts as a poster child of sustainability.

“These are the best managed fisheries in the world and you want to put a sanctuary in the middle of it,” said Robinson, commenting on behalf of the tribe. “We are opposed to it.”

The issue has caused so much rancor that both of Alaska’s U.S. senators, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, have chimed in. In February, they wrote a joint letter to NOAA asking the agency to revoke the nomination.

Despite the industry’s fears, supporters say the sanctuary would not create any new fishing regulations. Divine, from the tribe in St. Paul, said the designation would not prevent fishing in the region, and any new regulations would still have to go through the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, like they currently do.

“Sanctuaries, by legal definition, cannot exclude fisheries. That’s not an activity that they can prohibit,” said Divine. “Commercial fisheries will continue into the future. Subsistence fisheries will continue into the future.”

While the Bering Sea is incredibly rich and biodiverse, it is also experiencing vast changes, largely due to climate change. Seabirds, fish and marine mammals have all been affected.

George Pletnikoff is from the neighboring Pribilof community of St. George. He told attendees at the NOAA meeting that pushback against the sanctuary has been based on misinformation and scare tactics.

“It’s not a boogeyman,” said Pletnikoff. “It’s just an attempt to take care of our home. It’s dying, and you know it’s dying. And I don’t know other ways to do it.”

The sanctuary process is long and complicated. While NOAA has accepted St. Paul’s nomination, representatives from the federal agency said they have not made a decision about initiating the next step, which would be a multi-year designation process.

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