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August 2003

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Alaska Coast

By Joel K. Bourne, Jr.
Vernon Byrd, bundled from head to toe in an orange survival suit, clutched the side of a bouncing Zodiac as it skittered toward a ragged, two-humped island jutting from the frigid blackness of the Bering Sea. Bogoslof. Biologists like Byrd say the name as if the island were sacred, and in a way it is. The name means "theologian" in Russian. No ship can sail within three miles of its shore; no fisherman can venture within eighteen. Even the biologists in charge of the island visit only every few years so as not to disturb the raucous array of wildlife that inhabits every nook and cranny, from hordes of tufted puffins burrowing in the volcanic earth to a handful of Stellersea lions—twice the weight of polar bears—lolling like giant sausages on the black sand.

"When I first came here in 1973, about 5,000 Steller sea lions ringed the island," Byrd said, splashing ashore. "We tried to land, and they wouldn't let us on the beach." Now he counted only about two dozen massive heads above the throng of northern fur seals, the sea lion's smaller, darker cousin. "Everything points to good prey availability at Bogoslof," Byrd said with a tinge of Carolina drawl. "But sea lions continue to decline. And that's interesting."

Of course nearly everything in this salty realm is interesting to Vernon Byrd, who claims to have one of the best jobs in the U.S. fish and Wildlife Service. As senior biologist for the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, Byrd has the run of one of the strangest and farthest flung pieces of public real estate in the nation: a mostly vertical, guano-encrusted archipelago that includes 2,500 islands, cliffs, and outcroppings, not to mention 20 active volcanoes. If overlaid on the lower 48 states, his 4.5-million-acre domain would extend from Georgia to California to North Dakota.

Aside from a few scattered fishing villages and military outposts, most of the refuge is primeval wilderness rarely seen by human eyes. Yet it's a mecca for wildlife, attracting one of the largest concentrations of seabirds and marine mammals in the world. More than 40 million seabirds—80 percent of Alaska's total—and thousands of sea lions, sea otters, seals, and walruses flock to these storm-wracked shores to rest, breed, and raise young during the short northern summer.

The heart of the refuge lies in the Aleutian Islands, that long bony finger of Alaska that tickles the chin of Russia. The Aleutians separate two of the richest marine ecosystems on the planet: the North Pacific and the Bering Sea. The plankton-laden waters support an astonishing array of marine life, not to mention thousands of fishermen, processing-plant workers, and Alaska natives. The symbiotic relationship between land, water, people, and wildlife is as palpable here as the shroud-like fog or horizontal rain.

But despite such apparent abundance, all is not well on this Alaska coast. Since seabirds and marine mammals consume vast quantities of fish and plankton, they make good bellwethers for the health of the marine ecosystem. Thousands of top predators in western Alaska waters have vanished within the past 50 years, including more than half of the northern fur seals, 75 percent of the sea otters, and 80 percent of the Steller sea lions, which were listed as endangered in 1997. Some scientists think a slight rise in the temperature of the Bering Sea may favor leaner prey species, like pollock, over fattier capelin and herring. Others suspect high levels of DDT and PCBs in the animals, toxins that have migrated north in the atmosphere or were spilled at military bases on the islands. Environmental groups point the finger at a commercial fishery that removes some two million metric tons of potential prey from the Bering Sea each year—roughly half of all U.S. fish landings.

The issue boiled over three years ago after several groups sued the National Marine fisheries Service, the agency responsible for regulating fishermen as well as protecting endangered marine species. A federal judge sided with environmentalists, prompting the service to ban trawlers for 20 nautical miles around key sea lion sites. The ban infuriated fishermen and Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, who claimed it had little scientific basis. Stevens inserted language into an appropriations bill that granted a year to come up with a more palatable plan—today a hodgepodge of protected zones ranging from 10 to 20 miles—and he earmarked more than 40 million dollars for new research to find the cause of the sea lions' decline. How to best protect the sea lions remains hotly debated, leaving scientists like Vernon Byrd to scour the refuge for clues.

The Steller sea lion isn't the first of Georg Wilhelm Steller's discoveries to run afoul of humans. As Vitus Bering's naturalist on the Russian expedition that discovered

Alaska in 1741, the German scientist spent barely three days on Alaska soil, yet returned to Russia with descriptions of numerous species unknown to the Western world. Many carry his name, including the Steller's jay, Steller's eider, and Steller's sea cow, a docile relative of the manatee.

But it was a species that does not bear Steller's name that entertained him the most. "Altogether it is a beautiful and pleasing animal, cunning and amusing in its habits, and at the same time ingratiating and amorous," wrote Steller after observing a frolicking sea otter. "[It] deserves from us all the greatest reverence."

Bering's sailors, however, had something else in mind. After surviving a shipwreck and scurvy, which took Bering's life, the crew limped back to Petropavlovsk in a makeshift boat loaded down with 900 sea otter pelts. For each pelt, Chinese merchants paid the equivalent of a year's wage for a Russian clerk, beginning a legacy of natural resource exploitation along Alaska's coast that continues to this day. Russian fur traders enslaved the seafaring Aleuts who inhabited the islands, forcing them to hunt sea otters, and later fur seals. While Aleut hunters speared otters from their skin kayaks, known as baidarkas, the Russians lived like Cossack kings among the Aleut women. Their motto: "God is high above and the tsar far away." By the time the Russians sold Alaska to the United States in 1867, they had wiped out more than half a million sea otters and millions of fur seals, while their guns and diseases had reduced the Aleut population from an estimated 12,000 to roughly 2,000.

Not to be outdone, U.S. fur traders more than doubled the annual Russian fur harvest. When sea otters and fur seals were finally protected by international treaty in 1911, the otter was all but extinct, and only a tenth of what had once been 1.5 million fur seals remained.

President William Howard Taft declared the Aleutian chain a wildlife reserve in 1913 primarily to protect the sea otters, and the population slowly began to recover. By the 1980s, with the help of fish and Wildlife Service biologists, otters had reestablished themselves on many islands and were back to healthy levels of more than 65,000 in the Aleutians. But then Jim Estes noticed their numbers drop again.

Estes, a soft-spoken U.S. Geological Survey scientist, has spent most of the past 30 years studying the interwoven relationships between otters, sea urchins, and kelp in the islands, and now and then his ideas rock the boat of ecology. His latest theory: The falling population of sea otters, fur seals, and Steller sea lions has nothing to do with temperature increases, overfishing, or contaminants. Estes thinks they're being eaten.

On a crisp summer morning I joined Estes and fellow researcher Tim Tinker for an otter survey of the waters around Adak Island, a former Cold War spy base so far out in the Pacific it's closer to Petropavlovsk than to Anchorage. Estes handed me an orange flotation suit before we boarded a 17-foot Boston Whaler for the survey. "They're not really survival suits," he said, pulling the heavy coveralls over his lanky frame. "They just help rescuers find your body."

Luckily it was one of those rare bluebird days that occur perhaps once a month in the Aleutians, when the clouds part, the wind dies, and the rugged splendor of nature's handiwork is etched against the pale northern sky. Soon we were nosing along a rocky shore seemingly unchanged since Steller's time. The waterline embraced a labyrinth of habitats transformed by each tide. Rainbow-hued harlequin ducks and mottled brown common eiders flushed from hideouts, while mountains rose 2,000 feet straight up from the jade water. But as we cruised through the watery niches that were classic otter habitat, we spotted few otters. Those we did see were wary: Their wizened faces quickly submerged at our approach. By the end of the day, we'd tallied just 59 adults and 21 pups. Estes shook his head. "A decade ago we would have seen 600."

That evening, over baked halibut and beer, Estes explained his theory. When he visited nearby Amchitka in the early 1990s and discovered that half the island's sea otters had disappeared, he found high levels of DDT and PCBs in those that remained. He suspected the contaminants might be the problem. But on other islands he found populations with low contaminant levels, and they were falling too. He was baffled.

Then one of his colleagues witnessed a startling phenomenon: A killer whale came up and chomped an otter. Though orcas are known predators of much larger sea lions and seals, few had ever seen one take an otter, which would be the orca equivalent of an after-dinner mint. But the next day the researcher observed another attack. Then Tim Tinker saw it happen at Adak. Soon some of the otters they'd implanted with radio transmitters were disappearing.

Though Estes was skeptical at first, he and Tinker began to suspect the connection when they noticed that sea otters in Adak's Clam Lagoon were not disappearing. The lagoon otters don't go out to sea, and orcas are blocked from entering the lagoon by the pilings of a small one-lane bridge at its mouth. But elsewhere off Adak, Tinker said, "otters were dropping like stones." By 2000 up to 90 percent of the otters on some islands were gone.

What would make an orca that evolved to eat great whales and other large prey target a 60-pound otter? Estes believes the root of the problem may go back to the days of commercial whaling. From the 1940s to the 1960s, whalers killed half a million whales in the North Pacific and southern Bering Sea. With the large whales gone, Estes thinks the orcas turned to sea lions and harbor seals, whose numbers then fell through the late 1980s. Once they ate their way through much of the pinniped population, he believes the orcas changed prey again, taking some 40,000 sea otters in the central Aleutians alone in the past 15 years.

"It's an incredible theory," Estes said. "It may or may not be true. But it makes a lot of sense."

Maybe. But Chuck Fowler, former head of the fur seal program for the National Marine fisheries Service, believes the orca hypothesis minimizes the impact of the most adaptable and robust predator in these waters—humans. "Commercial fishing takes biomass out of the Bering Sea at levels ten- to one-hundred-fold more than the marine mammals are taking," said Fowler.

If fish scales were money, the muddy streets of the city of Unalaska—also called Dutch Harbor after its port—would be paved with gold. Tucked in the eastern Aleutian chain, the town of about 4,300 permanent residents boasts the best anchorage in the islands, making it ground zero for the fishery–marine mammal debate. Thousands of transient fishermen and processing-plant workers come here each year to find their fortune. "It's like the end of the Wild Wild West," said Rick Knecht, director of the local Museum of the Aleutians. "Even in the rest of Alaska people think we're just a bunch of drunk fishermen brawling in the streets out here. But now more families are moving in. It's becoming a real town."

Since 1988 Dutch Harbor has consistently ranked as the top fishing port in the nation in either pounds landed or value of product or both. It's the latest upswing in a historic boom-and-bust cycle that began when the village was the western center of the Russian sea otter trade, followed by the herring boom and crab boom, all of which eventually fizzled. The money fish of the moment is walleye pollock, a sleek, prolific cousin of the cod that accounts for a third of all U.S. landings. Big trawlers, ranging from 130-foot catcher boats to 300-foot floating processors, are allowed to net more than a million metric tons of pollock each year. Long a staple in the varied diet of Steller sea lions, pollock is now in just about every fish stick, fishfilet sandwich, and tub of imitation crabmeat sold in the U.S., Europe, and the Pacific Rim.

"Most people aren't aware of what's out here," yelled Rocky Caldero, manager of the UniSea processing plants, as he led me through a maze of machinery, conveyors, and catwalks that was throbbing to a high-voltage hum. "The plants here are the largest and most complex fish-processing plants in the U.S. The top three or four in the world in terms of volume. We'll process 2.2 million pounds a day of just pollock." Virtually every ounce of the fish is used. The roe is a popular and expensive gift in Japan. Filets are flash frozen and sold throughout Europe and the U.S. Fish too small to filet are churned into surimi, a white, tasteless, rubbery paste that is a major ingredient in artificial crabmeat. The waste is ground into food for eel farms in Asia. Even the oil is burned as fuel in the plants' generators.

The sea lion ruling that temporarily extended the fishing ban around rookeries in 2000 hit the industry hard, said Caldero. Boats had to go farther out to get the pollock, reducing the freshness of their catch. "Instead of getting fish less than 40 hours old, you get fish 60 to 80 hours old," Caldero said. "You can't do much with that. You can't make filets. Roe quality is diminished."

Like most people in the business, Caldero buys the industry position that the pollock fleet is the best managed fishery in the world. "Most people in the industry want to protect it to make money," Caldero said. "They don't want the sea lions to go the way of the sea cows. I don't think fishing pollock is the problem. The studies I've read say there's not enough nutritional value in pollock to make the sea lions survive."

Those studies, based on captive-feeding trials, show the animals lost weight on a steady diet of pollock but not on oilier fish such as herring or sand lance. It's come to be known as the junk food theory. Since pollock are voracious predators of other prey species, the industry line goes, then fishermen should catch more pollock to allow the other species to rebound.

"None of these theories can be proven," said Ken Stump, one of the Greenpeace architects of the environmental lawsuit that led to the fishing ban. "The industry latches on to the junk food hypothesis, ocean warming, and orca predation because they believe it exonerates them if it's a natural phenomenon." Stump believes that the removal of 150 billion pounds of fish from Alaska's waters since the 1960s has likely caused a fundamental shift in the marine ecosystem: There simply isn't enough food left to support historic populations of marine mammals.

Bob Storrs can see both sides. The wiry, bearded fisherman has been an environmental activist for two decades in Unalaska. When he's not fighting to protect local small-boat fishermen from the politically powerful factory trawlers, he's either pulling halibut over the rail of his 32-foot long-liner or sipping his whiskey neat from a corner stool at the Elbow Room—Unalaska's notorious bar and the de facto headquarters of the Bering Sea fleet. Yet he sided with the big boys against the 20-mile ban around rookeries.

"The folks that were hurt the worst were the small-boat fishery," said Storrs from his perch at the Elbow. "If the ban had stayed in place, I would be out of business as would everyone else. It made it very hard to be an environmentalist in western Alaska." Still, Storrs believes the industry is at least partly responsible for the sea lions' decline, but not because the animals are starving. "There was a huge take of sea lions by the pollock trawl fleet in the 1970s," said Storrs, shaking his head. "It was legendary. They were getting 40 sea lions a tow and dumping the carcasses overboard."

In fact, scientists estimate that U.S. and foreign trawlers may have caught as many as 50,000 sea lions in Alaska waters between 1960 and 1990, while fishermen legally shot an estimated 34,000 during the same period, ostensibly to protect their livelihood and their gear. Long viewed as a nuisance to fishermen, the sea lions finally gained protection in 1990 from shooting by all but Alaska native subsistence hunters.

Studying the ocean's inhabitants has never been easy, especially in the often brutal seas that Steller sea lions call home. Vernon Byrd believes that natural and human factors have combined against the animal. "No doubt removing the fish has had large effects," Byrd said. "But will this cause extinction? We don't know. Then here come the killer whales. They've always eaten a certain number of sea lions. But now with the pop-ulation depressed, they take more, percentage-wise. Then you have a bad storm year, which increases pup deaths, and things start stacking up. But I try to explain all that to a guy with boat payments, and he says, 'Are you sure?'" Byrd paused, then answered the question. "No, I'm not."

Times may be good for the pollock fishermen of Unalaska, but they're decidedly rocky for the people of the Pribilofs, the small group of islands smack in the middle of the Bering Sea. Here the largest remaining Aleut villages of St. Paul and St. George, each on a separate island within the refuge, are barely keeping their economies afloat.

The two islands, breeding grounds for the largest northern fur seal colonies in the world, were the mother lode of the fur seal trade for nearly two centuries, a source of unimaginable wealth, and an underlying force behind Seward's Folly in 1867. The federal government's sale of furs from the Pribilof harvest repaid the 7.2 million-dollar purchase price for Alaska within 20 years. The 1911 fur seal treaty banned taking the animals at sea and limited commercial sealing to government-controlled harvests by the Pribilof Islanders, who dutifully slaughtered seals for Uncle Sam until the mid-1980s, when animal-rights activists and a dwindling fur market shut down the federal harvests for good.

Karin Holser opened a closet door in her office in St. Paul and pulled out samples of what all the fuss was about. The first was a tanned sea otter pelt, jet black and so soft to the touch it was hard to tell where air ended and hair began. Beside it she threw a fur seal hide, buff brown, but equally luxurious. "This is where the animal- rights folks did us a disservice," said Holser, coordinator of the islands' stewardship program for local youth. "Here was a sustainable harvest that supported an indigenous village. People were feeding their families, not a huge industry."

After commercial sealing ended, St. Paul joined the lucrative crab fisheries in the Bering Sea. Then the Pribilof red and blue king crab stocks crashed, followed by the opilio snow crab stocks. Crabbing seasons closed, the island's two processing plants cut back, and 80 percent of the tax base evaporated. Today two dozen small long-line vessels fish for halibut around the island, providing up to half of many families' incomes.

Though the steady paychecks of the sealing days are sorely missed, the heavy hand of the federal government is not. Many elders still smolder over their treatment in World War II, when the Pribilof Islanders were evacuated to squalid "duration villages" near Juneau while the U.S. military took over their islands. Forced to crowd into an abandoned cannery and a mining camp without proper food, heat, or running water, the Pribilof Islanders lost 32 people to pneumonia, measles, and tuberculosis during their two-year internment. Most were elders and children. To make matters worse, when they finally returned home in 1944, they discovered that U.S. soldiers had vandalized their houses and their church.

"We were really mad," said 80-year-old "Auntie" Mary Bourdukofsky, who had two children in diapers at the time. "We saw pictures of a German POW camp, with nice Quonset huts with bunk beds and white ceilings. Our feelings really hurt inside for treating us worse than the enemy."

But her wartime experience and the years of paternalistic management by the fish and Wildlife Service, which controlled almost all aspects of island life until the early 1980s, hasn't dampened Auntie Mary's enthusiasm for her windswept home. "My mom said we live by the sea, and we never grow old," she said with a smile.

That same twinkle lit the eyes of 25-year-old Candace Stepetin as she gave me a tour of St. Paul in a pickup with Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl" blaring through the speakers. Stepetin works with the St. Paul stewardship program cutting fishing nets and plastic packaging from seals that come ashore with a garrote of such garbage around their necks. She showed me three neat puncture scars in her right hand, courtesy of a two-year-old seal she was trying to liberate. "If it had been a larger seal, he could have pulled my arm off," she said. She pointed out the graveyard, the bar, the Russian Orthodox church, and a hundred or so clapboard houses where 500 residents live. The village hugs a small harbor protected by a 50-foot-tall breakwater.

Outside the village the island rises in lush hills of purple lupine and wild celery, dotted with Aleutian buttercup. But it's the ash-colored beaches attracting hundreds of thousands of northern fur seals, along with more than two million birds that nest on neighboring St. George, that spurred the islands' nickname "the Galápagos of the North." At the rookeries, the big 400- to 600-pound males staked out their territories, which they will defend—fighting and breeding without food or drink—for up to two months. Most of the females, however, had yet to arrive. Only a few lay beside bleating pups. The young bachelors avoided the big bulls, content to sun themselves on their favorite beaches.

While the mass of steaming, writhing bodies is impressive to the first-time visitor, the image is deceiving. Nearly a million fur seals still swim in the North Pacific and Bering Sea, but that's half the number observed in 1951, when in these pages biologist Karl Kenyon described the rookeries as "the greatest assemblage of wild animals to be seen in such a limited area." Compared with photos from Kenyon's time, the beaches look practically empty.

Though federal harvests ended in St. Paul in 1983, the islanders still kill about a thousand juvenile male seals each year for food. The elders relish the boiled meat, pickled flippers, and a rendered seal fat dish some call Aleut Jell-O, but most of the young people I met  preferred microwavable pizzas from the local grocery store.

The hunts are community affairs. During one roundup, six islanders set out across the beach to make the initial cull. The seals stampeded toward the water. Yet the Aleuts managed to cut off about a hundred of the younger ones. After separating a dozen or so seals from the main group, four men, their oarlike seal sticks held high, circled the animals as the fog rolled in. The heavy sticks rose and fell. Other men aided by a few children butchered the seals quickly, cutting out the ribs, the liver, the shoulders, the flippers. Tastes just like veal, said one man. Better than a turkey dinner, said another. A few of the once precious skins were saved for crafts, but most were carried to the carcass dump with the rest of the offal.

There are bright spots in the Bering Sea picture. Refuge biologists have spent decades nursing the Aleutian Canada goose back from the edge of extinction and—thanks to a concerted effort to remove non-native foxes from breeding islands—the birds are now thriving. Steller sea lion numbers are up slightly for the first time in decades, giving researchers hope that they may have reached the bottom of their long slide. And some islands, such as Bogoslof, seem to be drawing animals from traditional breeding areas such as the Pribilofs.

"It's really interesting to compare Bogoslof and the Pribs," Vernon Byrd said, back on Bogoslof. "They're geographically similar, with very similar prey in the marine food web. Yet northern fur seals and red-legged kittiwakes have increased here, while declining in the Pribilofs. Why is the environment adequate at Bogoslof and not in the Pribs?"

One of the factors dropped right at our feet—a four-inch-long Atka mackerel, shiny silver on the bottom and midnight blue on top. The fish were flying by in a steady stream in the beaks of tufted puffins, which buzzed overhead like spacecraft in a Jetsons cartoon. The fish are so big, Byrd said, that a puffin chick will have to wait for the head to dissolve in its stomach before it can swallow the tail. "It'll feed them all day," said Byrd. "That means much less effort for the parents, who would otherwise have to feed them three or four times in the same period with tiny pollock. It translates into better breeding success. Interesting."

Despite the dearth of sea lions on Bogoslof, Byrd is optimistic that the data will soon show what the problems are and that a combined effort from industry, managers, and conservationists will be able to avert their extinction.

Meantime, the prospects for other Bogoslof creatures are looking better. In his inspection of the island, Byrd found that at least half the red-legged kittiwake nests had chicks, and the occupancy rate of puffin burrows was high. Male fur seals had established their territories on the beaches. And the sun was still shining, making Byrd practically giddy. "Sunniest day I've ever seen on Bogoslof," he said.

We headed back to the landing site and put on our orange suits for the ride out to the refuge's research vessel Tiĝlaˆx, at anchor a half mile offshore. The waves, though less than head-high, cracked on the steep beach with surprising force. We dragged the Zodiac down to the water, waited for a lull, and began paddling madly. But not madly enough. The first wave slapped the boat broadside. The next sucked it up and over, dumping us into the 38-degree water.

After crawling onto the beach like arthritic crabs, we tried again, digging the paddles deeper into the numbing surf. A wave feathered 20 yards in front of us. We barely made it over the crest as the motor cranked and were soon skimming out of the impact zone to the waiting ship.

"All right!" Byrd yelled like a teenager, holding up his hand for a high five. Georg Wilhelm Steller, Alaska's first naturalist, once wrote that he had fallen in love with nature. I couldn't help but think that Vernon Byrd had done the same. Steller had no inkling of things to come. Many of the animals he discovered on the expedition and described with such joy are now either extinct, endangered, threatened, or depleted. The future of those remaining now rests in the hands of scientists like Byrd—and our own.


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