With grocery supplies dwindling on remote Alaska island, the government opened seal harvest early

Northern fur seals gather at a resting area in the Pribilof Islands, where non-breeding seals congregate while they’re not out at sea feeding. (Dave Withrow/NOAA)

Dwindling supplies of groceries on a remote Bering Sea island prompted the federal government last month to approve an unusual, early opening of an annual subsistence seal harvest.

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Federal managers in June agreed to the early harvest on St. George, which is more than 200 miles from the mainland.

The decision came after a request by the tribal government, which said members needed the meat because the island’s store was running out of food, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Flights to the island are often canceled amid bad weather and because of what airlines say is a poorly-positioned runway.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve called ACE to say, ‘Hey, where are our groceries? Why can’t we get them?’” Mayor Pat Pletnikoff said, referring to the cargo airline that serves the island. “It happens on a regular basis.”

About 60 people live on St. George, Pletnikoff said. Passenger planes only come twice a week, and frequent flight cancellations can make it hard for residents to keep fresh food around.

One thing that’s not in short supply on the island? Meat.

St. George and nearby St. Paul both host massive populations of northern fur seals in summer and fall — about 500,000 between the two. It’s about half the world’s population, said Mike Williams, who works with the fisheries service.

But the seals’ harvest is strictly regulated by the federal Fur Seal Act.

While the St. George store was starting to run short on food last month, the harvest season wasn’t scheduled to open until June 23. So the tribal government asked the fisheries service to allow it to start earlier. (Tribal leaders did not respond to requests for comment.)

The fisheries service, which co-manages the harvest with the tribe, responded by issuing a special, temporary rule allowing the harvest to start three days early.

“The community needed food. And this was the way that the government could help with that,” Williams said in a phone interview from a federal bunkhouse on St. George.

Typically no more than 150 seals are taken in a year, and each one has about 30 pounds of edible meat, Williams said.

Those harvest numbers are down substantially from when the seals were hunted commercially for their fur. That’s how St. George and St. Paul were originally settled two centuries ago, when Russians forcibly moved Alaska Natives from the Aleutian Islands to help with the harvest.

Even after the U.S. bought Alaska from Russia, the government continued relying on the Pribilofs’ residents to hunt and process fur seals. But since the hunt ended in the 1980s, Pletnikoff, St. George’s mayor, said his island hasn’t received enough government support to transition to a more diverse economy.

St. George faces continuing uncertainty about its flight schedule amid the bankruptcy of PenAir, the passenger airline that serves the island. And without better, federally subsidized air service, Pletnikoff said St. George will continue to face problems like the food shortage that led to the early seal harvest.

Residents are also pushing Congress and federal agencies for improvements to their boat harbor to allow better access for barges.

“This early start on fur sealing — while a good gesture on the part of the United States government and the tribe — doesn’t begin to address the serious issues that we need to deal with and we need to get a handle on,” Pletnikoff said.