The Case of The Vanishing Seals: An Alaskan Island Mystery

Feb 29, 2016

Chapter 1. An Amazing Disaster

From a viewing blind in the middle of a seal rookery on Alaska's remote Pribilof Islands, it can be hard to fathom this place once holding vastly more life than it does now.

Untold thousands of chubby brown bodies drape over boulders and sprawl across the tundra into the distance: northern fur seals. Their bleating, groaning and barking fill the cool, salty air.

Northern fur seals at St. Paul Island's Reef rookery
Credit KUCB Photo / John Ryan

Up and down this stretch of Bering Sea shore, male seals, weighing up to 600 pounds, guard their harems. Females, after returning from weeklong fishing trips at sea, nurse their pups. Other pups lift their heads in the air, open their mouths wide--showing off rows of small, razor-sharp teeth--and spar with their young neighbors. Hundreds more swim and dive in the surf.

Other rookeries with thousands of seals dot the St. Paul Island shoreline in either direction. More northern fur seals come ashore on 13-mile-long St. Paul, the largest of the Pribilof Islands, than anywhere else.

It's a wildlife spectacle like few on earth. Yet it is a shadow of what it once was.

St. Paul Island's Reef rookery in 1948.
Credit National Marine Mammal Laboratory

 "If you go out for the first time, you're probably just amazed by all the animals that are there," fur seal researcher Andrew Trites with the University of British Columbia says. "But if you'd been there ten years earlier, you go, 'What happened?' If you'd been there thirty years earlier, you go, 'There's something really wrong.' And [if] you'd been there fifty years earlier, you go, 'There's a disaster.'"

He says seal populations in the Pribilofs have fallen 80 percent in recent decades.

"It's just an unprecedented decline," Trites says.

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The rookeries themselves are protected by two governments: the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island (the official name of the island's Aleut, or Unangan, tribe) and the United States.

Whatever's making seals disappear, it appears to be happening where they spend most of their lives, deep in the Bering Sea and other parts of the North Pacific Ocean.

"Animals are disappearing, but we've got no bodies to look at," Trites says. "And we're left trying to figure out what happened to them."

St. Paul, the largest of the five Pribilof Islands.
Credit KUCB Photo / John Ryan

Chapter 2. The Seal Islands

To call these treeless, windswept islands--known as Amix̂  in Unangam Tunuu, the Aleut language--"remote" is an understatement. As the storm-petrel flies, these specks of land sit 300 miles from the Alaskan mainland and 500 miles from Siberia.

St. Paul, Alaska
Credit KUCB Photo / John Ryan

They belong to Alaska, but they're so far out in the Bering Sea that they could as easily have wound up Russian territory as American.  

Russian navigator and fur hunter Gavriil Pribylov located the uninhabited islands in the summer of 1786. Sailing blind through thick fog, he followed the barking of thousands of northern fur seals to his prize. The beaches were so clogged with seals that the crew of his sloop, the St. George, had a hard time finding a place to go ashore.

Pribylov's successful hunt for the fabled islands ended Russian traders' three-year search for the main breeding spot of the coveted furbearers.

At the time, Russian merchants had already hunted Steller's sea cows off the face of the earth and turned most of the Pacific Ocean's sea otters into luxuriously soft fashion for Asian and European elites. But northern fur seals still roamed the North Pacific by the millions from Siberia to California.

An inspector stands in a fog of fur seal breath on St. Paul's Reef rookery in 1872 in this drawing by naturalist Henry Wood Elliott.
Credit National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Centuries later, a half-million fur seals still gather every summer to breed and give birth on the beaches of the Pribilof Islands. Noisy, raucous and pungent, the Pribilof rookeries are the northern hemisphere's largest gathering of marine mammals.

Though the commercial hunt ended decades ago, the seals' numbers are plummeting: nearly 5 percent a year. Millions have been spent on research to learn why.

On the Pribilofs, the Aleut, or Unangan, Natives call themselves "people of the seals." Their ancestors had been brought up from the Aleutian Islands, 200 miles to the south, as slave labor by Russian seal hunters.

Today, St. Paul Island is home to the world's largest Aleut village. As the seal population continues its free fall, many Pribilof islanders say their cultural survival is at stake--and that Seattle-based fishing boats are to blame.

Aleut men salting seal skins in the 1920s.
Credit National Archives and Records Administration - Pacific Alaska Region

Chapter 3. People of the Seals

Not long after Europeans arrived in the Bering Sea, fur seal pelts became a precious commodity. More than a century of overhunting nearly wiped out the species. Instead, the seals' steep decline led to the world's first wildife conservation treaty. Great Britain, Japan, Russia and the United States signed the North Pacific Sealing Convention in 1911.

Fouke Fur Company advertisement for a suit of Alaskan fur seal and jaguar from 1968.
Credit National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Pribilof islanders continued to hunt seals on a smaller scale for most of the 20th century. Several generations of Aleuts worked as wards of the U.S. government--essentially a captive labor force for the series of federal agencies that held a monopoly on seal fur and ruled over most aspects of life on the Pribilofs.

"1951 was the first time I worked with the seals," Greg Fratis Sr. says. "We were underpaid, overworked and given food which wasn't really nourishing, you know. And they paid us that food instead of money."   

Fratis has a quick smile, chews tobacco and is one of just a dozen native speakers of Unangam Tunuu left on St. Paul. He's been hunting since he was six, when he started hunting the small seabirds known as chuchki, or auklets, with a stick.   

"I'm going to be 75, and every chance I get, I hunt," he says.

The commercial hunt used to take tens of thousands of fur seals a year. Now Aleut natives like Fratis kill a few hundred seals a year, not for international fashion, but for local subsistence. The toll--less than a tenth of a percent of the island's seal population--is minuscule, even compared to how many seals disappear each year: the population is dropping by some 20,000 animals annually.

On St. Paul, food barged in from the outside world is pricey. A bag of pretzels at the island's general store can set you back nearly $10.

"I really rely on my native food, the fur seal and all the birds, the ducks and everything," Fratis says.

Gregory Fratis Sr. at his home in St. Paul.
Credit KUCB Photo / John Ryan

He says eating western food also makes islanders unhealthy.

"I did that too," Fratis says, "and now I'm taking medications to control my high blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol because of that food. So I prefer my native food."

Seal meat isn’t as popular as it used to be, especially among younger generations on St. Paul. Annual consumption of seal meat on St. Paul is down to 40 pounds per person. But Fratis says it’s still the most important local food on these isolated islands.

More than that, it’s central to Aleut identity.

"X̂ulustaakam anĝaĝingin akun," Fratis says. "We are people of the seals."

1914 scene in front of a (semi-)traditional Aleut barabara house dug into the tundra.
Credit National Archives and Records Administration - Pacific Alaska Region

St. Paul 8th grader Carley Bourdukofsky has started joining the subsistence seal hunts.

"Every summer I go," she says. "Sometimes, I watch to keep the herd not going off anywhere. I just keep it in a big circle."

Like many Aleuts, Bourdukofsky has a Russian surname, inherited from ancestors who were baptized into the Russian Orthodox church two centuries ago. We chatted during a St. Paul School field trip. On the wild, northeast tip of the island, the teenagers were learning how to hunt sea lions, as part of the tribe's effort to keep traditional practices and knowledge alive.

"Last week, my family, we went to that camphouse over there, and they boiled, I forgot what it's called, some Aleut word, but they boiled seal, and it's really good," she says. "I like the heart. The heart's really good."

Chapter 4. "I Need to Catch These Guys" 

Paul Melovidov led that field trip. He oversees the summer hunt of seal pups for the tribe's Ecosystem Conservation Office. He also works to monitor seal populations and protect their island habitat year-round.

"It's a different world here," he says. "We have a habitat that is a sanctuary for the fur seal. We, locally, respect the hell out of it, and it's part of our culture. We don't want to see any of that gone."

Melovidov is sitting in his pickup truck by a beach at the edge of St. Paul village. (It's too windy to do a radio interview outside.) Wave after wave from the Bering Sea pounds the black beach and sends white spray blasting across it.

It's a different world here.

"I see the decline in front of me on a daily basis," he says.

We're parked next to a sewer outfall and a small monument. It commemorates the U.S. government's forced relocation of Aleuts into squalid internment camps during World War II. Residents of the Pribilofs were given a few hours' notice to evacuate after Japan attacked parts of the Aleutian chain, 200 to 700 miles away.

Maybe a quarter mile from us, we can just make out dark lumps in the tall grass: It's a rookery of fur seals.

"The pups are malnourished," Melovidov says. He explains that nursing mothers used to leave their pups for a couple days at a time to feed on fish. Now the seals have to swim farther away, taking a week or more before returning to nurse the pups.

"They're not fed properly through that short summer feeding period," he says of the pups. "When it comes time in the fall for them to actually leave the island, they're not ready. A lot of them, I'm sure, die off when they leave."

Paul Melovidov
Credit KUCB Photo / John Ryan

Melovidov pauses. He seems distracted.

"I, I have to go. Yeah, I have to go," he says.

Melovidov has just noticed that two men who walked past us down to the beach have walked all the way into the seal rookery.

He starts up his truck and speeds off.

"I need to catch these guys before they interrupt any more seals," he tells me.

While zooming down the gravel roads of the island, Melovidov makes a call to the tribe's head of law enforcement.

"Hey, you got some trespassers. They passed the black bluffs and they're into that cove area," he says. "I'm heading down that way right now."

He pulls off the road by a sand dune. Then we rush across the dunes toward the men.

Melovidov shouts at the top of his lungs. He waves his arms in the air like he really does care.

The wind pounds our backs as we bushwhack toward our prey. The tall blades of dune grass are bent over in the wind. 

"Hey!" Melovidov shouts at the top of his lungs as the men come into view. 

The wind carries his voice toward the small figures, but they don’t respond. He keeps walking forward.

"Hey!" He waves his arms in the air like he really does care. 

Melovidov shouts a half-dozen times at the small figures in the distance.

Some of the seals are running away from the two men. Fur seals are built for swimming, but they can do a sort of clumsy overland gallop on their flippers. From a distance, with their heads in the air and their chests off the ground, they look a bit like bears loping across the tundra.

Finally, the men respond to Melovidov’s shouts. It is hard to hear anything over the wind and the surf. They leave the seals and walk back toward us.

Once they get close, Melovidov tells them they'd gone into an area that's closed off to protect the seals.

"There's a sign right up here," he says.

The men aren't from St. Paul. They're both carrying reindeer antlers they found on the beach. The one who does all the talking says they didn't see the sign.

"Sorry, dude. Didn't mean any harm," he says. "Why are the seals are so protected?"

"This is their habitat. This is their island!" Melovidov says. "They were here first."

Paul Melovidov (right) speaks with two men he caught trespassing in a protected seal rookery.
Credit KUCB Photo / John Ryan

Chapter 5. Draggers and Taggers

It's pretty rare for outsiders to walk right up and disturb the seals so blatantly. But many people on St. Paul are convinced that outsiders are harming the seals. And not just any outsiders, but the industry known locally as "the draggers."

That's slang for the big factory trawlers that drag giant nets through the sea, often along the seafloor. They mostly come up to the Bering Sea from Seattle.  

"The food source is being taken away by the fishing industry. The draggers," St. Paul elder Greg Fratis says. "They're the culprits here." 

"We don't have that evidence right now," Tom Gelatt says. 

The Nordic Fury and other Seattle-based trawlers docked at a seafood processing plant in Unalaska.
Credit KUCB Photo / John Ryan

Gelatt has come up to St. Paul from Seattle, but he's not a dragger: He's a fur seal researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The federal agency does a lot of scientific research in Alaska; it also manages Alaska's most lucrative fisheries.

"I think that the cause of the decline is still up in the air, and we're still trying to figure out why," Gelatt says.

Bering Sea trawlers aim to catch low-value, high-volume fish like pollock (often sold as McDonald's Filet-O-Fish), sole and flounder. Together, the fisheries make the Bering Sea America's most productive fishing grounds. Close to half of all seafood hauled in from U.S. waters comes from the Bering Sea, including more than a million tons of pollock each year.

In the Pribilofs, halibut fishing from small boats is the mainstay of the economy, and "dragger" is almost a dirty word. More halibut are caught accidentally and thrown away by Bering Sea draggers, as they hunt for other types of fish, than the local halibut boats reel in on purpose.

Despite that waste, or "bycatch," the nonprofit Marine Stewardship Council has bestowed its "sustainable seafood" label on pollock and other fish dragged up from the depths of the Bering Sea.

"The volume of fish, of biomass, in the Bering Sea is really large, and we fish it quite lightly compared to other areas," Lori Swanson with the Groundfish Forum in Seattle says. Her group represents 18 draggers, or factory trawlers, that fish in the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska.

"Fishing effort is not, I don't think, the driving force in the marine mammal population," Swanson says.

The federal government has put millions of dollars into studying fish and mammals in the Bering Sea. Tom Gelatt leads a team of NOAA fur seal researchers whose work is sometimes surprisingly low-tech.

"Today we're going to go out and we're going to apply more tags on pups," Gelatt says outside NOAA's St. Paul field station.

It's as close as I can get to the seeing the biologists at work. To avoid disturbing the seals unnecessarily, the federal permit allowing researchers to tag them doesn't let any "nonessential personnel"--say, a visiting journalist--tag along.

When Gelatt says tags, he means yellow, plastic tags.

"These are truly the same tags that someone might put on their cattle or their goats or pigs in the stockyard," he says. "We can put them into the flipper, and it takes about two seconds. Hopefully, that tag stays in for life."

Since fur seals come back to the same beach every year, the numbered yellow tags let researchers see for themselves which seals live, breed or die year to year.

Gelatt says they've ruled out some suspects, like disease and even radiation from Japan, but they still can't say what is making seals disappear.

"There's a lot of mystery out there that we're trying to get to," Gelatt says.

Studying fur seals isn't easy, and not just because they spend most of their lives underwater.

"The rookery's a very dangerous place for people," Gelatt says, "because those are large animals with big, sharp teeth."

While females weigh about 100 pounds, a fifth as much as the males, they will fiercely defend their pups. Gelatt says all the seals can be dangerous, even the pups.

"We call them little Tasmanian devils sometimes," he says of the pups. "They really can move fast, and you have to be careful with them, too."

Northern fur seal pup
Credit KUCB Photo / John Ryan

Chapter 6. Like Living On Celery

While federal scientists are hesitant to say why seals are in trouble, Andrew Trites is not. The UBC professor has been studying the diets of fur seals, which is not a straightforward task.

Fur seals do their hunting mostly at night and down to 600 feet deep: nearly impossible to observe firsthand. So how do researchers figure out what seals eat?

"Collect their fecal samples," Trites says. "They commonly use their resting places as their bathrooms, and, with baggies and spoons, we can collect those samples."

Trites says the dirty work on the tundra is actually a nice break from his usual routine in front of a computer.

"You know, it's really therapeutic," he says.

Combined with microscopic analysis of the tiny fish bones in that seal poop, the dirty work has led to a surprising conclusion. While North America's largest fishery and fur seals both go after the same species (pollock), they're not competing for the same fish.

The trawlers catch fish that are more than a foot long. The fur seals eat much smaller prey, typically pollock that are less than half that size. (And they swallow them without chewing.)

"While both groups, people and animals, are depending on the pollock, one group is taking adults," Trites says. "The other group are taking the babies."

But if the fishery isn't taking away the seals' food, why would seal pups be malnourished? Trites says it's nature, not humans, doing the damage. Essentially, the sea has been getting less nutritious for the seals.

"They're finding lots of juvenile pollock to eat," Trites says, "but pollock are very lean, and they contain very little fat."

A seal living on pollock is like you or me trying to live on celery.

"And if you're a seal or a whale or a seabird that's living in extremely cold ocean," Trites says, "you need high calories to get by."

Bird researchers have found parallel patterns among the seabirds that nest by the millions in the Pribilofs: The rise of low-calorie prey is making it harder to be a bird or a seal in the Bering Sea.

Fur seals in the Bering Sea surf
Credit KUCB Photo / John Ryan

Chapter 7. Flipping the Bering

Since long before humans started messing with it, the North Pacific has flipped between colder and warmer conditions. When the Pacific flips for a year or so, we call it El Niño. When it flips for decades at a time, scientists call it a regime shift.

That's what happened in the Bering Sea in the 1970s. As the sea flipped naturally to a warmer state, the new conditions favored lean, white-fleshed fish like pollock that humans like to turn into fish sticks. Fatty, oily fish that seals and seabirds thrive on--like the awesomely named northern smoothtongue--didn't do so well.  

"The ocean conditions play such a huge role in determining what the state of that system will be," Trites says, "and most of that is out of our control."

Except this time, whether the North Pacific gets a chance to flip back to a colder, more hospitable state for its marine mammals and seabirds might be up to us.

Carbon pollution is quickly making the whole world warmer, with the far North heating up fastest of all.

"The ocean may never flip back again to a cold phase," Trites says. "This may be the new normal."

People on St. Paul remain skeptical that taking billions of pounds of flesh from the Bering Sea each year isn't hurting the seals and seabirds that make the Pribilof  Islands unlike anywhere else.

Paul Melovidov with the tribe's ecosystem office says he thinks ocean conditions and the fishing industry are both taking a toll. "We're being fished in all kind of directions, from crab to longliners to, you know, just a variety of things going on out there around us," he says. "I'm sure that has an impact, a large impact on the habitat of a lot of these marine mammals."

But if Andrew Trites and his colleagues are right, the fate of the people and seals of the Pribilof Islands is as much in the hands of people around the world--driving their cars, using electric devices and generally pumping more carbon dioxide into the sky--as anyone fishing or hunting for the bounty of the Bering Sea.

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St. Paul, Alaska
Credit KUCB Photo / John Ryan

Reporting from St. Paul Island made possible in part by a grant from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources