St. Matthew Island

by Guest Blogger

July 17, 2006

The following posting is from Carroll, who is onboard in the Bering Sea…

After a 25-hour transit from St. Paul, we reached St. Matthew Island. We won’t put into port here, because there is no port. No airport. No roads. No town. No people… except, temporarily, for us. Nearly 200 miles in any direction from the nearest human habitation, St. Matthew is by far the most remote place in Alaska and the lower 48. This is no doubt a relief to the Steller sea lions that haul out on Hall Island, a few miles away.

St. Matthew is beautiful. Much bigger and more majestic than I’d expected. As we approached from the south, sheer rock walls rose hundreds of feet straight up from the sea. I half expected to see giant stone skulls in the surf and hear chants of “Kong! Kong! Kong!” floating down from the heights. But as we rounded the point and came in near shore, a new St. Matthew came into view, with rolling green slopes that looked more like Ireland than Skull Island.

Heading up the island, we saw our first whale.  We anchored at Bull Seal Point. We didn’t see any seals, but lots and lots of birds. Kittiwakes, puffins, murres so heavy with fish they could barely get airborne.

The waters around St. Matthew are rich in the herring, capelin and juvenile pollock critical to the diet of these birds, just as it is critical to their neighbors in the Pribilofs. Although the Bering Sea hosts more than 450 species of fish and invertebrates, only a handful of these species account for the majority of the seabird diet. This handful overlaps greatly with the 20 or so species that account for 98% of the fish caught by humans in the Bering.

In the Pribilofs, the ecosystem’s ability to feed fish-eating birds has already been compromised. In the mid-1970s and 1980s, around the time the major declines in Steller sea lions and fur seal began, there were also substantial die-offs of kittiwakes and thick-billed murres, resulting in population declines of up to fifty percent. As with the seals and sea lions, these seabird declines have been linked to a reduction in forage fish like the pollock. Fortunately for the birds of St. Matthew (and unfortunately for birds elsewhere), most of the pollock fishery is still concentrated in the Southeastern Bering, at least for now. Fishing boats come up this way—a fact abundantly demonstrated by the fishing floats we found scattered along the shore—but the great distance from port makes it a little less appealing. Let’s hope it stays that way.

Reducing fishing impact may not be the end of the story, however. Birds that feed at the sea surface are known to be affected by stormy weather, which makes it much tougher for them to feed themselves and their chicks. If, as predicted, global warming leads to an increased number of storms in the Bering, the birds of the Pribilofs—and St. Matthew, and St. Lawrence, and the Aleutians—may face a new and even more serious threat. Continued heavy fishing in the seas where they feed will only compound that threat.

One solution may be to set aside pristine areas, like St. Matthew, or coastal waters around the Pribilofs, where industrial fishing is prohibited or sharply curtailed. Doing that could not only protect forage for seals and seabirds, it could also create a natural laboratory where we could better assess the relative impacts of fishing and climate change. In high school biology experiments, we called it a control. Which is something human activities could use a bit more of these days.

– Carroll

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