American Heroes - Larry Mercuclieff

Hot Passion for a Cold Ecosystem

08-01-1996 // Marybeth Holleman

For more than two decades, Larry Merculieff and his fellow Aleuts have witnessed ominous signs: seabird chicks so weak that they fall from cliffs, adult birds so malnourished that their breast muscles cave in and Steller sea lions so hungry that they attack fur seal pups (a sight unheard of in Aleut memory). "What we're seeing is an ecosystem heart attack in progress," says Merculieff, who is from the island of St. Paul in the isolated Pribilof cluster about 500 miles west of the Alaska mainland..

The Pribilofs hold some of the largest seabird rookeries in the northern hemisphere and breeding grounds for most of the world's population of fur seals. To the Natives who live here, the notion of ecosystem is as old as their nearly 10,000-year-old culture. "This is the way we Natives have always understood our world," he says. "Everything is connected to everything else."."

And for Merculieff, promoting that understanding has been a lifelong mission. He himself has connected the dots between whole worlds--of commerce, science and diplomacy--with seemingly amazing ease. His many roles have ranged from Alaska state commerce commissioner, to city manager of St. Paul, to board member of the Native American Fish and Wildlife Society..

The story of Merculieff's involvement in the Bering Sea dilemma starts with the saga of his people, who in the early 1800s were forced by Russians to harvest fur seals in the Pribilofs. After the U.S. acquired Alaska, Pribilof residents were made wards of the government, which took over the purchase of seal pelts, with mere chits good at a government store. During World War II, Natives were removed from the islands, and much of their property was destroyed. Finally, in 1978, Pribilovians won $8.2 million in court for the abuse they had suffered. In 1984, however, the commercial fur seal harvest was banned, throwing the culture into disarray and despair.

But Merculieff had a vision of a future for his people. In the mid-1980s, as president of his Native village corporation at the time, Merculieff helped plan a St. Paul port to service the Bering Sea fishery. The facility was completed in 1990 and is thriving--but the ecosystem must also thrive to sustain it.

Today, 16 Bering Sea species--including Steller sea lions, Northern fur seals, harbor seals, kittiwakes and murres--are in severe decline. This winter, the National Research Council concluded that the wildlife in trouble is basically starving to death. And the agency suggested the lack of food comes from a "cascade effect" triggered by whaling, overfishing and shifts in sea temperature. Still, no one has pinpointed the cause.

Merculieff welcomes the council's conclusions, despite their bleakness. He had pushed for the study as one of the founders of the Bering Sea Coalition, a group representing the region's communities. "Now," he says, "there's no more debate in the scientific community that it's food stress." ."

Merculieff has tirelessly promoted his ecosystem model with scientists. In 1994, as a representative of Bering Sea Coalition and the city of St. Paul, he made sure the Marine Mammal Protection Act reauthorization included an ecosystem amendment for the Bering Sea. "He was the principal person in making the amendment happen," says Steve Zimmerman of the National Marine Fisheries Service, who also calls Merculieff "visionary." In 1994, as a member of the U.S. delegation to the Third Pacific Rim Fisheries Conference in China, Merculieff helped push for more research and management of Bering Sea fisheries. That same year, six countries signed a treaty limiting fishing in the Bering Sea's "Doughnut Hole," 48,000 square nautical miles of international waters.

Merculieff also works with Native leaders on programs to teach young hunters traditional conservation practices, such as not taking sea lion females and breeding bulls. And three years ago, he started a summer stewardship camp for Pribilof children to encourage caretaking of their environment.

These days, Merculieff works from Anchorage as cofounder of the Amiq Institute, formed to unite Bering Sea peoples in protecting the ecosystem with research, outreach and stewardship. And Merculieff hopes one day to see a major research center at St. Paul with the goal of (what else?) gaining a deeper understanding of the Bering Sea ecosystem. "I don't subscribe to the belief that we can manage creation," says Merculieff. "Those who do lack humility. All we can do is help creation along by managing the only ones we can--us two-leggeds.""

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