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A Puzzle In the Pribilofs

On the remote Alaskan archipelago, scientists and Aleuts are trying to find the causes of a worrisome decline in fur seals

Further complicating the mystery are other changes across the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska. About 1976, Alaska’s ocean underwent a “regime shift,” in the latest turn of a long-running natural climate cycle called the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. After rapidly warming, a sea once swimming with fatty forage fish like herring and capelin eventually became dominated by pollock, Atka mackerel and flatfish. But seals didn’t decline so dramatically during previous regime shifts. Why not? No one has a firm answer. Humans also have forced changes across the region. Thousands of whales were slaughtered and fish stocks depleted in the decades following World War II. One theory argues that the loss of these whales ultimately forced killer whales to switch to smaller prey like seals, sea lions and otters. But many marine mammal biologists strongly disagree.

Ream and others speculate that something has been killing off or weakening juvenile seals during their first winters in the ocean. Or possibly females have been miscarrying the next generation during their eight months in the North Pacific Ocean, setting off a downward spiral that compounds each year with fewer maturing females available to breed. One scientist has speculated that there might be a food “bottleneck”— not enough fish of the right size and kind—for seals during their migration. But no one yet has come up with conclusive evidence for any of these theories.

“We’ve been dealing with these changes for 25 years,” says Larry Merculieff, a former St. Paul community leader and now deputy director of the Alaska Native Science Commission, an organization that oversees research and gathers observations by Natives, other residents and scientists. “I am concerned that we won’t know what is going on with the fur seals until they decline beyond the point of recovery—since managers don’t act without adequate scientific proof.”

Karin Holser, the coordinator of the Pribilof Islands Stewardship Program, which recruits school kids and teenagers to clean up beaches, cut away plastic and rope from entangled seals, and help gather data, says she is frustrated also. “I see the seals crashing, and I don’t see anything happening,” says Holser. “How can you have a zero budget for seals when you can see them going down?”

The urgency appears to have caught on. The Pribilof Island Collaborative, a group of Natives, scientists, conservationists and fishing industry representatives, has been pushing for more money to investigate fur seals. And the Congressionally mandated North Pacific Research Board and the industry-funded PollockConservationCooperativeResearchCenter have asked scientists to submit proposals for research. Most important, millions of dollars in federal money previously limited to sea lions will also become available this year to investigate fur seals.

Another resource may come from tapping the insights of the Pribilof Aleuts; their lives have intertwined with fur seals for more than two centuries. They need to take a larger role in managing local populations, says Aquilina Lestenkof, who has become a leader in a movement to merge Native ways of seeing the environment with Western science. Her late father, the Very Rev. Michael Lestenkof, served for a generation as the village’s American Orthodox priest and was widely respected as a man who knew a great deal about seals. He questioned the pruning of females in the 1950s and ’60s because it contradicted traditional knowledge and practice. Remembering his misgivings, she wonders what knowledge of the ocean and its food died with those old, wise females. “There’s more to know than we know,” she says. “There’s more than we understand right now.”

Some 525 people live in the village of St. Paul, spread among 170 houses and apartment buildings on two facing hills, with the harbor, corporate offices and warehouses, and a school in between. Bikes lean unlocked against buildings and homes, and children play in shirt-sleeves outside the school. People greet strangers on foot with a cheerful wave.

Arctic foxes scramble up a dirt lane past a battered old house, a new Honda four-wheel all-terrain vehicle parked outside, electric guitar strains emerging from a second floor window. There may be no telephone in the room at the King Eider Hotel, but you can catch CNN off the village’s wireless Internet.

Listen closely, and you might hear the surf, but you will not hear the barking of dogs; they are prohibited on the island to protect the seals. So are rats. The tribe and city work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to maintain a network of traps, poison and patrols. The words “Keep St. Paul Rat Free” appear on signs in strategic locations across the island.

Dustin Jones guides the pickup truck over gravel roads past the fisheries service barracks, past the slopes of extinct volcanoes, past a field where heavy equipment plows under soil contaminated by decades-old fuel spills and leaks, past the airport. He drives eight miles or so toward the northeast end of the island, unlocking a gate and moving by an old cottage and a beautiful open-air chapel that marks one of the island’s earliest village sites. It’s time for another daily patrol.

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