Stiff winds blow over the treeless islands of St. Paul and St. George, over 300 miles from mainland Alaska. The Pribilof Islands, breeding grounds to the northern fur seal in the middle of the Bering Sea, seem unlikely actors in world events.
“People come and say, 'It's in the middle of nowhere,'" says Aquilina Lestenkof, an Unagan native whose family has spent five generations on the islands. "But really, it's in the middle of it all." Lestenkhof refers to the global ties created by the fur trade, where distant world events affect native economies, and cultural influences from around the world meld in lives of the island inhabitants.
Lestenkof is the core character in "People of the Seal: The story of Alaska’s Pribilof Islands," a documentary produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as part of the Pribilof Islands Environmental Restoration Project, which aims to reduce negative environmental impacts caused by 116 years of a U.S. government-run fur trade on the islands.
NOAA posted the hour-long film, nominated for best documentary at the American Indian Film Festival in 2009, to its YouTube page late last week, along with a shorter film about Henry Wood Elliot. Elliot, an artist, amateur naturalist and fur seal enthusiast, is widely credited with saving the fur seal from being hunted to extinction. Most of the sweat behind the North Pacific Fur Seal Convention of 1911, the first international wildlife conservation treaty, was his.
Lestenkof's people, who come from a mixed Slavic and Aleutian background, have relied on the fur seal for centuries. In the 1800s, the northern fur seal trade was the most profitable enterprise in Alaska. Just twenty years after buying the Alaskan territory from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million dollars, the U.S. recouped the entire purchase price from the fur trade alone.
While fur seals (and the connected economy) bounced back from the dark days of the early 1900s, when seal populations crashed, the local fur economy again collapsed in 1983, after pressure from animal rights groups caused the U.S. government to ban fur seal trade. The local economy never completely recovered from this bust, but the Unagan maintain close cultural ties to the fur seals, including subsistence hunting. Yet today the Unagans -- historically a highly educated group of people who spoke and read both Aleut and Russian -- are seeking to maintain their way of life amid a worrying trend: Seal populations are again on the decline.
For the past decade or so, populations have declined annually by about 6 percent. The cause isn't clear. It could be due to competition for food, overfishing, pollution or natural predatory cycles.
The documentary, which discusses these issues but also paints a rich portrait of tribal life on the islands, allows Lestenkof, co-director of the tribal government's ecosystem conservation office, the space to weave her people's compelling story, one combining threads of centuries-old cultural and natural history. The threads come from all over the world, and are knotted in a singular, little-known place.
Danielle Venton is an intern at High Country News.
"People of the Seal" was produced by NOAA's Ocean Media Center and directed by 42° N Films, as part of the Pribilof Islands Environmental Restoration Project.