The Heart of the Ocean: Alaska’s First National Marine Sanctuary?

Brihannala Morgan
Date: August 25, 2022
A sunset adds drama to the high bluffs of St. George Island, one of the Pribilof Islands in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge Credit: Dean Kildaw/USFWS

A new source of hope for sustainability and Indigenous co-management of natural resources is being developed far off the Alaskan coast. Alaĝum Kanuux̂, or Heart of the Ocean, is set to become Alaska’s first National Marine Sanctuary — a model for truly sustainable co-management of environmental and cultural resources. 

In the Bering Sea, 300 miles off the coast of the Alaska mainland and over 800 miles from Anchorage, two small islands share a truly unique ecosystem. The Pribilof Islands of St. Paul and St. George are located 30 miles north-northeast from the continental shelf break, creating a unique oceanography and an ecosystem teeming with life. The islands are home to more than half of the world’s breeding population of northern fur seals and large colonies of seabirds. The region nurtures important Bering Sea commercial fisheries including walleye pollock, pacific halibut, snow crab, and red king crab. And these islands are also the home of the Aleut communities of St. Paul and St. George. These strong communities have shown how they have survived horrific abuses throughout history, including World War II internment camps, Native boarding schools, and epidemics of disease filling the island’s cemetery. These communities have fought many times for their lives and their livelihoods, and are now taking action to ensure their natural resources are co-managed sustainably and that they are in control of their economic future. 

Why Alaĝum Kanuux̂? 

Three fur seals on the rocky shore of St Paul Island. Credit: Lisa Hupp/USFWS

Recently, there has been an alarming decline of fur seals, sea lions, seabirds, fish, crab, and other invertebrates on the islands, with real costs to wildlife, human and ecosystem health, local economies, and culture. For example, northern fur seals are fundamental to the lives and livelihoods of Pribilof Islands Aleut communities — yet this species has declined to less than one-quarter of their estimated peak historic population of 2.1 million animals in the 1950s. The Aleut people of St. Paul and St. George know they must take action to ensure their land and waters are sustainably co-managed in a way that reflects their traditional knowledge and expertise and can lead to a sustainable future. This is why the Tribal government of the Aleut community of St. Paul, or ACSPI, have proposed Alaĝum Kanuux̂ as Alaska’s first National Marine Sanctuary. 

The Alaĝum Kanuux̂ nomination was launched in December 2021, starting the path toward creating a meaningful marine sanctuary for both people and the planet. On June 8th, 2022 — World Oceans Day for many around the world — Alaĝum Kanuux̂ was accepted to the Inventory of Successful Nominations.​ For the next 18 months to two years, the specifics of the sanctuary, including the specific area to be designated, the co-management plan, and more, will be determined.  

Supporting Indigenous partners and Alaĝum Kanuux̂

Two parakeet auklets at the edge of a cliff, St. Paul Island, Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Lisa Hupp/USFWS

Pacific Environment is taking an active role in supporting this groundbreaking nomination, using our experience in communications and campaigning to help support ACSPI’s powerful team of organizers, lobbyists, and local experts. Specifically, Pacific Environment has been supporting the Pribilof Islands Marine Reserve (or PRIME) process through developing a public communication plan and supporting the development of a new website and social media presence. The goal of this project is to ensure that people from off-island understand the importance of Alaĝum Kanuux̂ and have access to valuable information about PRIME. Pacific Environment will continue to support the dynamic campaign and communication needs during this designation process. In addition, our team’s experience working on the original St. George application gives Pacific Environment a valuable connection that may be able to help. 

Stay tuned to hear more about Alaĝum Kanuux̂ and why the “Heart of the Ocean” is a culturally and ecologically special region worthy of being Alaska’s first marine sanctuary.