The Voice of the Sea

by Jessica Miller

July 28, 2006

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

We’re sitting in Nash Harbor, on the north side of Nunivak Island, waiting for the storm to pass. There’s no town here. Just a handful of huts that look to be abandoned. At least for now. The deep silence is broken only by the hum of the ship. And by the wind. Even in the shelter of the harbor, protected on three sides from the worst of the weather, the wind is howling, creating white caps on the water, and occasionally rattling the roof of the ship.

Back on St. Lawrence, the wind is one thing the Yup’ik are worried about. The wind blows harder and more often in the spring and summer, they told us, and from a new direction. Whipping up the waves that make it hard to hunt and fish in their tiny boats.

Like the residents of the Pribilofs, the Yup’ik make part of their living by fishing, mostly for halibut, and the salmon that run along the coast. Even so far north, they were concerned about the spread of industrial fishing in the Bering. They are worried that trawlers could come to their island next, once the fish further south are depleted. It’s a reasonable worry. The history of factory fishing is one of serial depletion. When a new fishing ground is opened, vessels converge there, fish ‘til its exhausted, then move on to the next area. This history has repeated itself in the Bering just as it’s repeated itself everywhere factory fishing occurs. And the remoteness that once safeguarded places like St. Lawrence is affording less and less protection as vessels range ever farther in search of unexploited—or less exploited—fisheries.

In Savoonga, people told us that the shallow waters around their island are an important fish nursery, critical not only to their own well-being, but to the health of the whole ecosystem. Many of them felt that those waters, and similar waters around other Bering Islands, should be protected from industrial fishing, not just for the sake of the islanders, but for the sake of the Bering Sea itself.

But they also worry that no one will listen to them. Some of them asked how a handful of people on a tiny island could take on an industry worth a billion dollars a year? But George told them that they are not alone, they are part of a growing community of Bering islands that share these concerns. And unlike the fishing vessels, that come and go from a thousand miles away, the Yup’ik, and the Unangan of the Pribilofs, and the Aleutian Islanders are as much a part of the Bering as the fish and game they hunt. The sea’s fate is intertwined with their own. If they can speak with one voice, it will be the voice of the sea itself.

And hiding out in this tiny bay from the Bering in full roar, I can tell you from personal experience, that’s one very powerful voice.

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