The tiny Alaskan island fighting for its future

"It's a little rock out in middle of the Bering Sea. Twelve miles long, three miles wide. It's high, we've got cliffs that top a thousand feet. And it's got millions of birds and it's got thousands of seals.’’

''My name is Patrick Pletnikoff. I was born here on St. George Island in 1948.’’

The remote, fog-shrouded and weather-beaten St. George Island may be rich in wildlife, but there’s not many humans left there to protect it.

That’s apart from mayor Pletnikoff, who hopes that his long-cherished vision for reviving the island’s tiny economy, and its declining colonies of northern fur seals, might now have a fighting chance of success.

With President Joe Biden pledging to protect 30% of U.S. land and sea by 2030, Pletnikoff is pushing the federal government to designate Alaska's first marine sanctuary around St. George.

He says this could unlock a new "conservation economy" based on eco-tourism, sustainable fishing, and field trips by scientists studying the stark impacts of climate change in the Bering Sea.

"Marine sanctuaries are very significant, and we believe in order to preserve the value of what people refer to as the 'Galapagos of the North', we need to have a designation, something that will allow protection and something that will allow us to preserve and have a voice in that decision making process."

Generations of Alaska’s indigenous Unangan people worked in harsh conditions in the commercial seal harvest on St. George until it was banned in the 1980s.

With the island’s population now down to about 50 people, some doubt that tourism will be enough to reboot the economy.

The fishing industry is also wary, saying the waters off St. George are already among the most rigorously managed in the world.

Scientists are still puzzling over why the island’s seal population has declined dramatically since the 1950s.

Regardless, many islanders believe industrial trawling is at least partly to blame.

Laurance Prokopiof is public works director on St. George and a former fisherman.

"The whole process of going after the sanctuary status was to push the big fishing fleet, trawling fleet away from the island. Right now, the limit we have out here is three miles. So you can watch these guys going back and forth out there scooping everything up. Basically, that's it, just to get them away from the island and try to get our stocks to recover, whether or not that is too late for that, we don't know. I mean, fishing is dismal out there now, versus 10 years ago."

And far greater disruption may be in store from a source that no sanctuary can prevent: climate change.

With Bering Sea winter sea ice shrinking to its lowest level in millennia and marine heatwaves coinciding with mysterious die-offs of puffins and other seabirds, rising temperatures are playing havoc.

Still, Pletnikoff believes that combining indigenous knowledge with modern science could be the best hope of protecting St. George's furred, feathered and flippered inhabitants from the challenges ahead.

"Yeah, this could be a reconciliation, this could be a point where we recognise that we need to help you, help you preserve that environment, help you preserve the animals on which you depend, which you depend on for life to eat, to sustain yourselves; very much like they [the animals] need our help now to get out there and to have the prey species available to them so they can sustain themselves. We're going to be their spokesman. I want to be their spokesman."

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