With the disappearance of Alaska’s snow crab, St. Paul faces the loss of more than just a fishery
Last October, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game shut down snow crab for the first time in the fishery’s history. After years of abundance, the species was announced overfished.
For one small island in the middle of the Bering Sea, that would bring a big hit to the local economy, and put its culture and community at risk.
St. Paul Island is the largest of the Pribilof Islands. It’s home to about 330 people — most of whom are Unangax̂ and Indigenous to the Aleutian region. It’s also home to the biggest snow crab processing plant in the nation.
The City of St. Paul declared a cultural, economic and social emergency shortly after the major Alaska fishery was shut down. They anticipated roughly $2.7 million in economic losses — an enormous hit for the tiny community.
Now — almost a year after snow crab was closed — some of the effects are beginning to take shape.
Julia O’Malley has been writing about the state’s climate, food, politics and culture for more than two decades. She recently visited St. Paul to better understand how the island community is dealing with the crash, and to learn what’s at stake. Her story was originally published in July by Grist, a nonprofit online magazine that explores environmental topics. It takes a deep dive into the ways this economic and climate crisis might change the island’s economy and culture.
O’Malley uses interviews with locals and primary historical documents to research some of St. Paul’s lesser known history. She describes how the island was shaped by a lucrative fur seal harvest, how that harvest was subsidized by Indigenous slave labor and how that forced labor became an incentive in the nation’s purchase of Alaska. Now, she’s exploring how that history has shaped people’s connection to the land, and what might happen if the culture, language and memory of that place were to disappear with the snow crab.
KUCB’s Maggie Nelson sat down with O’Malley to hear more about her story. Here’s part of their conversation.
JULIA O'MALLEY: You know, so I started to think about what does a place like St. Paul preserve? What does living in that place help to carry forward and preserve? And language, a precious disappearing language or, you know, a slowly being revitalized language, depending on how you look at it, was one of those things, but there's all of these things you need to place. And in particular, people who have direct connection to, and a memory of, what the government and the Russians did there — when those people scatter, it dilutes that story. And it's important to remember that story, not that we're any good at not repeating history, but maybe, so we won't repeat it.
MAGGIE NELSON: So I mean, could you tell me about your research and interview process as well?
O'MALLEY: I'm a part-time curator the Anchorage Museum. Right now, I'm working on research for a book that looks at salmon in the era of climate change, which is pretty connected. And so I was able to get support from the curators there, in particular, Aaron Leggett, who helped me to find primary documents, and then I sort of started to discover all this stuff that I didn't know about St. Paul. There's a little bit that you can find right on the top about indentured servitude, or forced sealing. But I didn't really understand that Indigenous people were in a position where they were basically enslaved by the U.S. government into the mid-century. So, I mean, that's pretty significant. And I've lived here my whole life, and I did not understand that piece of history, nor did I connect that to the purchase of Alaska. That slave labor was an incentive to buy Alaska, because there was tremendous money to be made from hunting northern fur seals, but that money was only being made if the actual hunting was basically uncompensated.
So I had only a certain amount of time, and I can't accurately understand or communicate the depths of the experience and connection that the people have to the place. I can't know. You know, there's no way for me to speak for that place, to explain what it means to lose crab, to explain the losses and the trauma that came with the history there. But also, at the same time, I can't explain the connection that people have to that place. As reporters, our job is just to listen, and listening is really hard. It's really, really hard. And so all I could do is go there and listen as best as I could. And write down what I heard, and go back and ask people, "Did I hear this right?" And it was 85% right. But that exercise, the thing of really trying to just be a vessel for the story of a place, it's a lifelong practice for journalists, and you can't ever know what the truth is, not really.
NELSON: So I kind of want to take a step back a little bit, and I'm wondering if you could talk to me just about those specific economic effects of the crab crash in St. Paul — what that looks like.
O'MALLEY: Well, St. Paul has not been unwise, understanding that there's tremendous variability in the world of fishing. And it, during boom years, took money and invested it for the future. And so, there is a baseline income for the town. And there are tribal entities there that are doing okay, that are employers, there's opportunities for tourism. But it was like 60% of their budget that they lost overnight, and had to really figure out a couple of million dollars. But there's only 330 people who live there, and they need things like heat, and they have utilities and they have to haul away the trash and it's a tidy, well-run place. So there are a lot of things that they're having to sort out.
But they had to do like an online fundraiser just to be able to afford emergency medical services because, you know, they lost funding like that. And so it was a real earthquake for them. And also there's just the sort of psychological impact of like, we had this crab plant, it was a going concern. You could go there and eat your dinner in the season and it made things busy. And it had this kind of halo effect out into town with the store and you know, all of that stuff. And that disappears. And so you got young people trying to raise their kids, the school is getting smaller and smaller, they don't have secondary teachers there anymore, and for those people who are trying to put down roots or raise families, it's just like, there's a lot of trade offs. And when the economy crashes quickly like that, there are more trade offs. But to sustain a place, you have to have multiple generations. So you got the old people who need that support, and you got the young people who are trying to make decisions. And when the economy comes apart, all of those different constituencies have concerns that are unmet.
NELSON: You pose this really great question or idea that all "Alaskans will ultimately face whether to stay in a place and what to hold on to if they can't." So I guess my question is, how do you place this within a larger picture in terms of Alaska, in terms of what we're seeing with climate change, and how that's affecting people in Alaska?
O'MALLEY: I'm looking at the news today, and we got floods and fires, and we're having this incredible year climate wise. And so Alaska's story is not really unique. But I guess we live in a place where we are so dependent on the natural world to survive economically, for subsistence. And I think because the place is such a strong character here, it's hard to know who you are, at least for me, when I leave Alaska, I don't think I make sense anymore. But it's hard to know who you are without the land and the animals. And when that gets upended, it's like, sometimes I think about my grandmother, she was in Florence, her family was Italian, and they lived through World War II, and she came to United States. And there were these scraps of her identity that she carried with her. But I was never able to understand what it was like for her to live in that place, and who she was in that place, or even exactly who she was, because she didn't speak English as a first language, you know.
And there's sort of a corollary there for us, when you remove us from the places where we live, if we can't live there because the ocean is rising and it's covering over our town; we can't live there because we don't have salmon anymore, and our caribou herd is declined; we can't live there because you can't fish king salmon anymore. You know, however that goes, it's like we lose this understanding of who we are, and also the place that we come from. And because Alaska doesn't have tech workers or manufacturing or any of that, most of what drives us, even tourism, is about the natural world. So when we fracture that relationship, it's like, we fracture our sense of self.