Brothers of the Seals
Captured with a noose pole and pinned down, the seal struggles. Carefully, three teenagers immobilize the muscular body on a restraining board. One wrong move and flashing canines will sink into the nearest hand or leg, slashing it or tearing a chunk of muscle as big as a ripe plum. Around the seal's neck, an ugly wound reveals a loop of emerald-green fishnet, discarded or lost by a fishing vessel somewhere in the Bering Sea months ago and now embedded in putrid flesh. Curious northern fur seals play with floating trash and get entangled in the fishnet. As the animal grows, the debris cuts into its neck and slowly kills.
The youngsters stroke the heaving flanks of the frightened seal, extract and cut the netting, bag and record the type of debris. The restraining device swings open and the seal humps down the beach and slips into the surf pounding against Alaska's St. Paul Island. If its superb immune system kicks in, the disentangled animal will recover.
"I like watching them go," says Eric Galaktionoff, a 19-year-old member of the disentanglement team recently organized by the Pribilof Islands Steward-ship Program. Muscular and quick, Eric recently won the $400 jackpot for climbing a Crisco-smeared pole during Inde-pendence Day celebrations on the island. He loves to struggle with big bulls and feel their power tugging against his hard body. But the real payoff comes when a seal dives into the Bering Sea, free of its burden. He adds, "Once I cut a net off a bull with a deep, bleeding wound but after I finished he didn't run away. Just looked in my eyes, and I think he was thanking me."
Crouching near Eric, Candace Stepetin, also 19, surveys the small team with her deeply set dark eyes. Not long ago, she and several other young Aleut people followed Bruce Robson, a seal biologist from Seattle's National Marine Mam-mal Laboratory, on a rescue expedition. The laboratory funded the effort and taught the team how to sneak up on seals, how to run along the water's edge to cut off the animals' natural escape route, how to herd and then release them in a narrow file, so every seal with debris around its neck or flipper could be spotted and, if all went well, disentangled.
Not everything went well. These first trips to seal rookeries around the island seemed to drag. While Robson and Aquilina Bourdukofsky, who heads the Stewardship Program, busily scanned the coastline with binoculars and assembled the equipment, the teenagers sat in the truck listening to loud rock music, sipping sodas or dragging deeply on cigarettes, while looking bored and disconnected. First attempts at teamwork were chaotic, for some youngsters did not show up on time, or not at all. Some seals were herded too fast and ended up panting from dangerous overheating, which could kill them. Others slipped the noose and escaped. And no amount of care could save animals wounded too severely to recover. One seal, with windpipe already severed by nylon monofilament, died on the beach after the team removed the debris.
Yet, as the misty and cool summer went on, something shifted. Rock music began to give way to discussions about disentanglement strategy. The equipment was assembled quickly. Boredom slinked away and the team fell into step. Earlier, a seal bit Candace, giving her several nasty puncture wounds. There was no telling if she would get up her courage again but she did, becoming a good, steady "nooser" who emerged as a natural leader. Encouraged by Robson, she took over the team and he pulled back.
Traditional Aleut hunters and fishermen were keen observers of phenomena crucial to many species: the sea ice, currents and winds, intricate patterns of animal migrations. But today most of their descendants, particularly young people who, like Western teenagers anywhere, are removed from their traditional role of environmental caretakers.
"We see on St. Paul what is happening elsewhere," says Larry Merculieff, a St. Paul native and the coordinator of the Bering Sea Coalition of Native communities concerned with preserving the region's vulnerable ecosystem. "Our children are growing up knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing," he says.
Merculieff says that some of St. Paul's youngsters have been tearing across the fragile island tundra in all-terrain vehicles, leaving litter and disturbing seal rookeries during the critical summer breeding season. Many of the teenagers were only dimly aware of their spiritual and physical connections with the land and sea. Yet this sense of connectedness is crucial if one day they are to wisely develop a sustainable conservation ethic on their island.
Clearly worried, Merculieff addresses the larger picture. "People destroy, trash and exploit Mother Earth because they are missing the link with their spiritual selves," he says. "Our wisdom-keepers tell us that nothing happens outside that doesn't happen inside: We are thrashing the environment because we are thrashing inside. True environmentalism has to start with love and reconnecting with who we are, and, through this, with all creation."
A subsistence hunter and fisherman, Merculieff remembers how one winter he met four young men hunting sea lions near the northeastern tip of the island. "In my generation, we watched the wind and the waves to make sure the animal we shot would drift ashore," he says. "We used all our senses and honored everything, not just the act of killing. We watched the animals, learned their rhythm of deep dives and big breaths of air, and when they emerged we would shoot them right behind the ear-an instant death. But these young men were not watching. They were loudly jabbering away. Two of them were using low-caliber rifles, missing the animals or striking their backs. And I saw that, with the introduction of television, the role models for the young people became cartoon characters-macho, violent, careless, impatient, talking loudly and constantly."
Lost in the frigid one-million-square-mile expanse of the Bering Sea, Alaska's Pribilof Islands lie at the outer edge of the continental shelf, their volcanic rocks buffeted by sub-Arctic gales. Their cliffs and black reefs bite into the surf. The shelf, awash in upwelling currents, provides nutrients for a huge biomass of plankton. The food store of the Bering ecosystem, the most productive in the United States, and perhaps in the world, sustains more than 450 species of fish, mollusks and crustaceans, which in turn feed at least twenty-five species of marine mammals and many species of seabirds.
The seals swim back to the shores of their birth in June and July from their winter feeding grounds, which stretch across the North Pacific from southern California to Japan. Here, they congregate in clamorous boulder-strewn rookeries to breed and rear their young. A view of the seal rookeries around English Bay alone reveals more wild mammals packed in a limited area than virtually any other place in the world. Often referred to as 'the Galapagos of the North,' St. Paul is a true seal island: cool, wet and resounding with a chorus of threatening growls, trumpet roars, melodic warbles, hollering yells, loud barks, sheep-like bleats and whickers.
Although the seals provided Aleut hunters with meat and excellent pelts for centuries, the people never wanted to settle on the Pribilofs, which they considered a spiritual power center too dangerous for ordinary mortals. Yet the supreme quality of glossy furs attracted relentless fortune seekers, and in 1786 the fog-shrouded islands were detected by Gerasim Pribilof, a Russian ship navigator.
Others soon followed and brought scores of enslaved Aleut sealers from their native Aleutian Islands to kill the animals on land and prepare the pelts. Terrible conditions decimated the workers and nearly eight out of ten people died from introduced diseases or starvation. The millions of pelts harvested in the Pribilofs by the Russians whetted the appetite of American businessmen, and eventually the United States purchased Alaska in 1867. In the next twenty years, the pelt revenues equaled the price of the purchase. But the continuing commercial harvest and pelagic slaughter reduced the Pribilof herd from millions of animals to fewer than 150,000. An international treaty, signed in 1911, banned all seal hunting at sea and regulated harvest on land, saving the animals from extinction.
A shrinking fur market brought an abrupt end to the U.S. government's commercial harvest in 1983. Some animal rights groups put out full-page ads in international newspapers, calling the Aleut people bloodthirsty and greedy. The villagers received hate mail from all over the world, a hurtful comment on two centuries of what amounted to forced labor. Yet the seal harvest was the base of St. Paul's economy. The government pullout eliminated the majority of its wage base. Community-wide depression followed, and during the next two years there were about one hundred suicide attempts, four suicides and two murders, all in a village of six hundred people.
Deprived of livelihood, the people scrambled to create an independent economy, but two centuries of servitude fractured their abilities. David Cormany, the island's resource management specialist for the National Marine Fisheries Service, talks about the way his job used to be performed by the so-called "Senior Agent."
"His mission was to maximize commercial revenues from the seal harvest, but he controlled everything," Cormany says. "In the old days, I would be the one who would have your mouth washed with soap for speaking Aleut. I would take you away from your family. I would decide if you got married, and when. And you would do as I said, or you would suffer. There was a concerted effort to stomp out all the traditional ways of living and force people to fit in with the commercial exploitation of the island."
Cormany's job today includes encouraging people to participate in management decisions. "There is no way we are going to preserve our fur seal population without the equal partnership of the Aleut," he says.
Eventually, with the help of the U.S. and Alaska governments, which poured in millions of dollars, the people put together a new economic base. It was not without a price. The enlarged airport facilities to bring in tourists and promote development invite more air and noise pollution. The new harbor serves the Bering Sea fishery, a billion-dollar-a-year industry, and now up to three hundred vessels surround the island in winter, from small crab catcher boats to freighters, supply ships, huge fish processors, rusty trampers and fuel barges holding millions of gallons of diesel, often burdened with ice and tossed around in the heavy sea.
Other signs of trouble emerge. All marine mammals in the United States are protected, but the northern fur seals are already listed as depleted. Some rookeries are visibly declining. The alarming drop in populations of Steller sea lions, harbor seals and many species of birds, fish and shellfish indicate that the Bering Sea may be stressed by a whole accumulation of events, including climatic changes.
She talks about the young people lost in the shuffle of the industrial development on the island, about parents working in offices and the traditional knowledge of hunters and fishermen disappearing. And about the day when two 11-year-old boys decided to practice their hunting skills. "They went to a seal rookery in July, which is a no-no," she recalls. "And they met Dr. Steve Insley from the Smithsonian, who called me right away. He said the boys were proud of being hunters but seemed quite unaware of federal regulations, and one of them was my son. The northern fur seal is the most thoroughly studied marine mammal in the world, but I suddenly realized how little I know and how little communication there was between our people and the scientists working on the island for years. So I went to them and said: "Guys, I need to know more about what you do."
Today, stewardship students work with scientists from the National Marine Mammal Laboratory, Smithsonian Institution and the universities of Colorado, California and British Columbia, compiling data, taking census of animals, obtaining tissue samples, helping with necropsy and lab work. The disentanglement team also helps in a subsistence harvest of about 1,600 young male seals a year, which provides the village residents with fresh seal meat. A traditional food, it also nurtures the Aleut culture. During the harvest, young stewards learn from experienced sealers how to herd the animals, remove pelts and cut meat.
They also build traditional baidarka boats and skin drums, remove tons of seaborne debris from beaches, explore the island, learn Aleut songs, listen to ancient stories and eat seal dishes prepared by the elders. They begin to monitor the ecologically vulnerable parts of the coast. Several went to college, and some plan to become marine biologists.
These days, Aquilina Bourdukofsky receives many requests for guidance from other Native communities in Alaska eager to start their versions of the program. Some teachers wonder how to do it in the confines of their schools. Bourdukofsky jokes they should find a classroom, move out all furniture, pull up the carpets, install a floor drain and bring a freshly harvested seal to butcher and cook in a traditional, respectful way. Bourdukofsky believes stewardship is a state of mind not easy to achieve. "But every good birth has a hard labor," she says. "Why do we try to stop pain? These young people want to do the right thing. They just don't know how and have to figure it out."
As the brief Alaskan summer ends, the scientists begin to depart. Bruce Robson, his nose twitching from good kitchen smells, prepares a giant pot of reindeer Stroganoff, accompanied by steaming piles of brown rice and cheery, red tomatoes grown in his garden in Seattle and flown to the vegetable-poor Pribilofs as a special treat. He wants to feed the hungry disentanglement team before he leaves for the rest of the year, but someone swings the door open: There is an entangled seal in the Reef rookery south of the village.
"Cool!" exclaims Samantha Zacharof, one of the youngest team members. She races for her noose pole. The steaming feast is forgotten as Candace, Eric, Curtis, John, Andrew and Henry follow her into the thickening dark. Soon they crawl among the slippery boulders of the rookery, careful not to alert thousands of big, ferocious animals looming around them, and look for the one who needs their help.
They smell the pungent scent of the breeding seal colony and listen to the deafening symphony of trumpet roars, melodic warbles, hollering yells, loud barks, sheep-like bleats and rhythmical whickers.
They are, after all, the brothers of the seals.