National Geographic : 2003 Aug
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 Alas ka'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 environmen tal 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 whis key 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 envi ronmentalist in western Alaska." Still, Storrs believes the industry is at least partly responsi ble 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 leg endary. They were getting 40 sea lions a tow and dumping the carcasses overboard." In fact, scientists estimate that U.S. and for eign 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 88 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * AUGUST 2003 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 cer tain number of sea lions. But now with the pop ulation depressed, they take more, percentage wise. Then you have a bad storm year, which in creases pup deaths, and things start stacking up. But I try to explain all that to a guy with boat pay ments, and he says, 'Are you sure?'" Byrd paused, then answered the ques tion. "No, I'm not." T imes may be good for the pol lock 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 seal ing 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 mar ket shut down the federal harvests for good.