Scientist Gets a History Lesson on St. George Island

by Guest Blogger

July 20, 2012

Horned Puffin. Photo: Kirk Sato

Guest blog by Kirk Sato, PhD Student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UCSD.

After sleeping overnight on an airport bench in Anchorage, low-lying fog conditions in St. preventing me from flying in on schedule, I arrived on the small island of St. George and was greeted by none other than the Mayor of St. George, Patrick Pat Pletnikoff. What better opportunity to fulfill my role as a scientist than to step off of a small plane in the middle of the Bering Sea to chat with a native Aleut Alaskan, to talk marine policy, fisheries management, oceanography, and climate change?

St. George is also home to more than a million Northern Fur Seals, and was once the center of commercial seal harvesting for the United States. I can hear the fur seals calling across the small bay from restricted beaches and I can see them in the distance jumping out of the water, undoubtedly hunting for fish. Dozens are floating in the calm summer morning ocean with their fins in the air on this clear afternoon.

Northern Fur Seal. Photo: Kirk Sato

As the sun sets around 11:30 pm, I begin reading a white paper about the Pribilof Domain (an area that includes Pribilof and Zhemchug Canyons as well as St. Paul and St. George Islands. The paper includes Pats testimony to Congress on the still unrealized Fur Seal Act Amendments “intended to promote and develop a stable, self-sufficient, enduring and diversified economy not dependent on sealing.” Pat advocates well for his community saying, We are a small boat fishing community only desiring the ability to make a living from our waters in a responsible and respectful manner. We want to protect the surrounding waters of our island, the fur seals and sea birds. Today, our people and wildlife that call St. George home is suffering. We ask for help to change this.

Never in my life have I witnessed such an abundance of wildlife as I have during my first day on St. George. Walking along the intertidal boulders, I am surrounded by thousands of seabirds. I spot at least 8 different species including auklets, puffins, murres, and kittiwakes. There are literally millions on this small island. Many other bird species migrate seasonally from Asia, but some, like the snowy bunting, stay on St. George year-round. Witnessing this purple lupine-covered landscape, home to hundreds of seabird colonies and millions of northern fur seals, I immediately understand the incredibly high level of productivity that must support this ecosystem. This is an important biogeographic region for seabirds and other marine organisms. It is also home to some 80 native Aleuts and Eskimos.

Parakeet Auklet. Photo: Kirk Sato

Last night I stayed at the St. George Hotel, a large 3-story home with about 15 rooms, a refurnished kitchen, cable television, and a quiet study room overlooking the Bering Sea. It is managed by a wonderful host and native Eskimo, Marge Lestenkof. The hotel is operated by the St. George Tanaq Corporation. Tanaq in Aleut means land. I learned the phrase Tuman Tanax Agliisaaxtan which translates to take care of our land. It is obvious that the residents of St. George take great pride in their cultural heritage. Marge told me stories of how the entire village performs native Aleut and Eskimo ceremonial dances for tourists when they arrive from enormous cruise ships that pass by.

Walking through the dirt roads of downtown St. George, I meet Ann Prokopiof. Ann and her husband live in the oldest house on the island. She was awarded the St. George Elder of the Year in 2009, and she says she and her husband dont get involved with politics anymore. Understandably so, Ann and her husband, Alexi, fought hard for their independence from federal control in the 1980s and their family continues to keep their culture alive. She was born here in the old hospital that overlooks the bay. Her granddaughter was also born here and attends the local school.

At the general store I met the owners, and native Aleuts, the Merculiefs. Since Im not allowed to travel with chemicals, I was ecstatic to find a large supply of rubbing alcohol (isopropanol) there. At the checkout stand, manager Darlene Merculief skeptically asked me what purpose all of this alcohol was for. Once I explained that I was a biologist that required this high percentage alcohol to preserve biological samples, she immediately understood.

Sally Merculief directs the St. George Island Institute, an educational program that facilitates ecological research and sustainable living on the island. Four years ago, students of the St. George Island Institute aided in the discovery of probably the rarest kelp in the world, Aureophycusaleuticus, the Golden Kelp.

The students have been trained by Pribilof Domain expert Michele Ridgeway and camp volunteers to understand the basic biology and ecology of their marine environment. Today, they used a Remotely Operated Vehicle to explore the underwater world and have been collecting their own data and addressing their own research questions. Tonight there will be a potluck dinner at the community center where the kids will present their results in front of the entire town.

Sitting at the store entrance was Anthony Merculief, observing my every move. As soon as I make eye contact, he immediately asks me, What brings you here?

Anthony Merculief. Photo: Kirk Sato

During World War II, Anthony, 70, and the other 200 Aleuts of St. George, were placed in internment camps. He and his wife were both born on St. George, and like my Japanese American grandparents, they were taken from their home and held in internment camps across the mainland United States. Anthony was just a small boy at the time, but returned to St. George Island two years later after the war ended.

Anthony went on to serve in the U.S. army in Hokkaido, Japan, as a Morse Code Interceptor, a 4th Class Corporal. When he returned to St. George, he worked for the St. George Traditional Council and served as President for 8 years. Anthonys son, Christopher Merculief, is the current President. After asking more questions about his familys experience in the internment camp, I realized that the Aleuts of St. George, particularly Anthony, have an incredible story to share; a story very different from my Japanese American Nisseielders.

I learned that the natives from St. George were transported to Funter Bay in Southeast Alaska to stay in an abandoned gold mine. Fighting disease, hunger, and frigid weather for two years in Funter Bay, it is a miracle that I am able to chat casually with Anthony in front of a grocery store freezer today. When Anthony called me brother (referring to my grandparents who were also interned during WWII) and requested I send him a copy of what I plan to write, I felt one step closer to fulfilling my purpose here. I asked Anthony if I could take his photograph in front of the store, overlooking the cliffs where thousands of seabirds nest. As a fellow photographer, Anthony and I both share an interest in wildlife photography, which was evident by the dozens of photos of seabirds and landscapes taped to the freezer windows.

Anthony also explained the seriousness of the issues currently affecting his community. Traditionally, fishing, sealing, and hunting have been an integral part of the Aleuts survival and culture. Anthony convinced me that eating seal meat for subsistence was the same as eating beef or pork. The Aleuts prefer the young seals the same way that the Japanese prefer smaller halibut and the Italians prefer veal. Fish, mainly halibut, has been a key resource for these islanders.

Traditionally, handmade Aleut boats called bidars used to haul catches by the tons from fishing vessels to shore. Before the construction of the harbor, bidars were used to haul pickup trucks and supplies to shore. Amazingly, these bidars were able to float using seal skins as canvas. Several years ago, Greenpeace and the native Aleuts and Eskimos butted heads over the traditional hunting of fur seal pups, but now, the two groups are collaborating to conserve the marine resources around St. George and St. Paul Islands.

A major concern among the residents here is the fact that catch numbers by local small-boat fishers have dwindled to record lows in recent years. In fact, native Aleut, George Pletnikoff, currently works for Greenpeace USA, and is currently in Washington D.C. He and his brother, Pat are meeting before Congress in hopes of gaining a Marine Protected Area in the federally regulated waters around Pribilof Canyon. Their argument is delivered on behalf of the vast majority of St. Georges small community. According to Anthony, Pat, and Greenpeace, overfishing by the commercial fishing fleet and destructive fishing methods, like trawling, have contributed to the decline in Pribilof fish stocks, especially halibut, leaving essentially no fish for the subsistence fishermen of St. George. In addition, the trawling methods used to catch these fish is destroying the coral and sponge habitats on the seafloor of the canyons.

The reason why I am here, in fact, is to provide the scientific support necessary for Greenpeace to collect, preserve, and later identify the benthic communities in Pribilof Canyon. Ive come to work with Greenpeace on their ship the Esperanza, analyzing video and still images taken from their submersibles and processing the samples they bring back. During their last cruise to Pribilof Canyon, in 2007, Greenpeace and their colleagues (including Michelle Ridgeway) identified a new species of sponge – the name, Aaptos Kanuux, is Aleut for heart signifying its role as the heart of the Bering Sea.

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