The Steller Sea Lion (SSL) of the North Pacific have been in danger of extinction, depletion or as a threatened species for a long time. As Unangan people who live on the Aleutian and Pribilof Islands and depend heavily upon the health of our environment for our continued survival, we have witnessed this almost daily as we go about our lives.
Finally, after years, and in some cases, decades, of trying to bring focus to the plight of the SSL, some relief has finally arrived. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has submitted a final report to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (Council) in a meeting in Anchorage Alaska, that the overall health of the SSL is critical to a healthy ecosystem. Finally, NMFS has taken a stand against the wishes of the pro commercial fisheries Council and announced that they will follow through on the protection measures recommended in the Biological Opinion (BiOp) they released in August. This decision helps to protect the SSL of the western Aleutian Islands by closing all waters to Pacific cod and Atka mackerel fishing to ensure the SSL have enough food to rebuild their population to healthy levels. This decision, however helpful to sea lions in the Western Aleutians, fails to address sea lion populations in the Central and Eastern Aleutian Island regions or Gulf of Alaska, which remain in jeopardy. But we have a good beginning.
In their report to the Council, NMFS said that they had received upwards of 10,000 comments on their BiOp, the majority requesting the critical need to protect this population of SSL. Personally, I am honored to have been working with Greenpeace as a person of Unangan descent for the past six years on these issues of the Bering Sea. My people have survived here for almost 10,000 years and I feel some vindication in our efforts to finally come so close to victory.
Unfortunately, there is a but to this statement. But we have so much more to do. The food upon which the SSL depend the most is still in jeopardy of becoming depleted. The walleye pollock of the Bering Sea is the number one prey food for the SSL and many other mammals and birds of this critical and sensitive habitat, and yet very little is being done to lower the amount being caught by the fishing industry. Currently 850,000 metric tons of pollock are still being taken out every year from the Bering Sea, and this is proving to be more than the ecosystem can withstand. Our work is not even close to finished.
I just noticed the two coincidental numbers cited above, of 10,000 letters and 10,000 years of survival for my people. One letter for each year of our continual presence in this place we call home. Without your vigilance; without your concern; without your determination, both the Unangan and the sea lion may have just gone away quietly forever, never again given a second thought. Thank you all from our ancestors and our cousins of the ocean for your support and help. We have another day to keep fighting to both protect ourselves and our home, the Bering Sea.