Karin Holser, out in the field on St. George Island

Karin Holser, out in the field on St. George Island

My Turn: Marine sanctuary designation will strengthen Native input

  • Wednesday, October 12, 2016 1:03am
  • Opinion

Congratulations to the Alaska Native Unangan Community of St. George, a tiny island in the Bering Sea, for taking advantage of a wonderful opportunity to experience more self-determination.

I have had the honor of working and living in the Pribilof Islands since 1995, and was pleasantly surprised by their most recent initiative to protect the natural environment. The St. George community have nominated the waters surrounding their island to be considered for designation as a National Marine Sanctuary.

This is not a new effort: Pribilovian fishermen and subsistence hunters have a track record for working together, plus networking with outside fishermen and scientists to advance ecosystem-based management for the region. When the collective single-management actions did not yield results for slowing precipitous seal and fish stock declines, the St. George Traditional Council submitted the first tribal nomination for a federal marine protected area — the Pribilof Domain Cultural Heritage Zone in October 2011.

[My Turn: Obama’s marine monuments are good start, but so far ignore important coastal seas]

Advancement of this nomination was stymied by National Marines Fisheries Service officials who failed to recognize the 60-mile fur seal protection zone that was established in 1913. Yet, the community did not give up. The St. George community fishermen, tribal members and others persisted in requesting adjustments to fishing regulations to reduce young halibut bycatch, king crab habitat damage and fur seal protections through the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council (NPFMC).

These modest requests to address multiple species declines in Pribilof Domain were overshadowed by industrial fishing interests or simply NPFMC members’ priorities and single species exploitation focus. Meanwhile, keystone area creatures and their culturally prized species, the iconic northern fur seal, made no significant recovery. Recognizing the uniqueness of the Pribilof canyon and role in supporting life on their island, Unangan leaders reached for a more holistic solution. In June 2014, several St. George tribal members travelled to Washington, D.C. to continue their quest to access better tools and strategies for protecting waters around their island. During that eastward expedition, they thanked President Obama for opening the National Marine Sanctuary Program site evaluation list and signaled that they would be putting a nomination forward.

The National Marine Sanctuary Program (NMSP) is a management strategy which allows for more efficient collaboration among state, federal and tribal agencies to achieve management objectives. The NMSP is not a “lock up” the resources program. On the contrary, commercial activities are allowed and encouraged. The NMSP does provide communities located near sanctuaries with more influence to formulate strategies for what goes on in the waters that sustain them.

The level of formal Alaska Native input on marine waters stewardship that can be achieved through the sanctuary program is not available to tribal members through the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council. Although tribal communities rely intimately upon ocean resources for spiritual, subsistence and economic well-being, their role in the NPFMC is through a narrow “consultative” interaction, whereas indigenous people serve on National Marine Sanctuary advisory councils, hold research, management and enforcement jobs in marine sanctuaries, and are otherwise more equitably engaged in ocean management.

Sanctuary programs also involve other marine management entities in decision making, such as the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service and state agencies. All of these agencies individually have an impact on management decisions regarding resources that affect communities, but there are no community seats at the decision table.

My friends and neighbors in the Unangan Community of St. George have explained to me that they see the National Marine Sanctuary Program as a welcome opportunity for them to finally have a determining influence in their own future. As climate impacts, increased vessel traffic, declining budgets and other changes loom large in the Bering Sea, locally focused adaptive management is key to survival. Indeed, this is what self-determination is all about — being empowered to make decisions that affect the St. George community, Unangan culture and the future of their island, resources and deeply cherished next generation, their children.

• Karin Holser is the coordinator of the St. George Island Institute.

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