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New Bering Sea canyons management, a victory for subsistence

George Pletnikoff

Recently the North Pacific Fishery Management Council passed a motion to go beyond simply reviewing the science and actually start developing new management options on Pribilof and Zhemchug Canyons of the Bering Sea shelf.

These two canyons are the largest underwater canyons in the world. From the Tribal Community perspective, we believe this to be one of the biggest victories in a council process that has historically watched out for the interests of the large industrialized commercial fishing interests of the Bering Sea and other areas of the planet.

The primary concern of Greenpeace, Alaska Inter-Tribal Council, Southern Norton Sound Fish and Wildlife Advisory Committee, The Bering Sea Elders Group and many other Tribal Communities that provided very strong and much-needed testimony to the council supporting this request is subsistence. Certainly there are major concerns about benthic habitat destruction and the need to protect them, but without a healthy ecosystem our foods we depend upon and have for generations will begin to go away.

There are two "old sayings" that come to mind here. First, "Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it." And the second: "If we disrespect the animals we depend upon for food, they will go away." I think we are all familiar with the first. The second one comes from an elder in my village of St. George Island when I was a child. He said: "If we disrespect the animals, and we knowingly allow others to do the same, the animals know it and will move away from us."

Let's look at the first saying mentioned above. In 1990, more than 22 years ago, Katie John and others filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Government regarding subsistence rights. Let's not forget the courage and wisdom of these people and what they did to protect our subsistence rights and needs. The Bering Sea is our source of subsistence foods. Almost everything we need to sustain our lives and that of our children comes from the Bering Sea.

And although we look at the Bering Sea on a map and consider its size, in reality it is not that big. Only about half of the Bering Sea is really usable for economic development and sites for the foods our food need to sustain themselves. Of that half, there are only a few places where our foods can go. Perhaps it has always been this way, but certainly it does look this way today. If one part of this extremely productive marine system is damaged, other parts of this system will begin to fail as well. The problem is, we simply do not know, and thus the need to try to protect some of it.

From the Aleutian Islands, up northwest past the Pribilof Islands and further north to Russia there is the Bering Sea shelf. On that shelf are six large underwater canyons, Pribilof and Zhemchug being two of them. And these two canyons, from all understanding, are extremely productive providing nutrients, nursery grounds, corals and sponges for almost the entire Eastern Bering Sea. And they have been hit hard in the last fifty years with deepwater commercial fishing, the most damaging of all by the bottom and mid-water trawlers. For the sake of our foods and that of our Tribal Communities, these canyons need to be protected from further destruction. Unless this happens, we may lose much of our much needed subsistence foods.

The second saying above is equally critical to our survival as Tribal Communities. Let's not forget from whence we came. As indigenous peoples, we have a long history with our ancestors, our cultures and our ways of living. Generations of our ancestors, our elders and our people sacrificed everything to fight the good fight, to protect who we are, our cultures, languages and ways of life. Without them, their insight, wisdom and courage we may be a lost people, drifting and wondering who we are. Sometimes it is easy to forget, especially when we begin to believe we have all we need. Without remembering what they have done for us and how important what they fought for, we begin to stumble and fall and eventually lose who we are.

As then, subsistence is critical to our people, especially now when there is so much demand for the resources of the Bering Sea, Chukchi Sea and the Arctic Ocean. The world is getting desperate for these resources, and unless we protect what's important to us, so will we.

George Pletnikoff is Unangan from St. George Island. He is Alaska Oceans Campaigner for Greenpeace, living in Palmer. The preceding commentary was first published in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Alaska Dispatch welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.