By George Pletnikoff, Alaska Oceans Campaigner
Coming home to St. George sparks a lot of memories. I was very fortunate to grow up in this close knit island community of friends and family that provided for me in my formative years. The abundance of northern fur seals and over 150 different species of marine birds, nesting on thousand foot cliffs lining the northern shore, were a natural laboratory in which to grow. I always new this was a place I had to protect and my family continues to make a pilgrimage each year to return to the seal rookeries and bird cliffs.
It also sparks memories of the Esperanza’s visit during its 2007 tour to protect the Bering Sea, the largest food fishery in the United States, that is threatened by large industrial fishing trawlers.
St. George and other Pribilof Islands are critically important in our work to protect the Bering Sea ecosystem. The support of local indigenous communities offers not only the opportunity to collaborate in this work, but also the driving reason to seek these protections: the community has survived on the resources of the Bering Sea for millennia, and continues to do so up to this day. Their dependence on the local sources of food strengthens their culture and ensures a healthy source for subsistence. Industrial fishing vessels from far away have no right to threaten this way of life, yet that is what is happening.
St. George, and it’s sister island St. Paul, are the only islands close to the Zemchug and Pribilof deepwater canyons, each larger than Arizona’s Grand Canyon. These canyons, and their influence on upwelling currents, provide the critical nutrients for Bering Sea ecosystems that support nursery habitats for the fish and other marine wildlife of the Bering Sea. Greenpeace seeks to protect the canyons from destructive fishing impacts that threaten this vibrant ecosystem.
Back in 2007 we spoke to the tribal council and the community about our campaign to use submarines to collect data in the canyons. We promised to return when we finished our research and published a scientific paper on the deepwater ecosystem at the bottom of the canyons.
Now, the paper has been published and the Esperanza is back. We shared our research findings with the community: There is an abundance of deepwater corals in the Bering Sea Canyons, in fact there is more than most places in the world that have been researched. Fish, including commercially important species depend on coral and sponge habitat. We also discovered a brand new species of sponge and found the existence of many species farther north than anyone had been known before. These corals are especially sensitive to fishing damage and are easily broken by passing trawl nets. They are very slow growing and can take hundreds of years to recover, if at all.
The community has also been driving the work to protect the Bering Sea. Since 2007 they have initiated their own application to establish a marine protected area for Pribilof Canyon. Sally Mercuief, the tribal administrator, commented that it is good to see Greenpeace and the community are working together. Greenpeace will continue to offer support and whatever resources we can to ensure their success for protecting their marine resources and the foods that they depend upon for their survival.
To begin, the Esperanza is returning to the canyons, submarines ready, to continue our research.