Brothers of the Seals: Aleut Teenagers Save Endangered Creatures

By Momatiuk, Yva; Eastcott, John | The World and I, September 1998 | Go to article overview

Brothers of the Seals: Aleut Teenagers Save Endangered Creatures


Momatiuk, Yva, Eastcott, John, The World and I


The seal struggles and flashes its canines while the three teenagers carry its wiggling, muscular body to a restraining board. Around the animal's neck, a loop of green fishing net--discarded or lost by a fishing vessel somewhere in the Bering Sea--has created a deep wound. Carefully, the young people remove the netting and record the type of debris. Then they open the restraining device, and the seal plunges in the surf pounding against Alaska's St. Paul Island.

If its immune system kicks in, the animal will now survive. But the loop of netting could have been its death warrant. Northern fur seals play with floating trash, occasionally slipping nets or other junk over their heads. But as an entangled animal gains weight, the debris will cut into its flesh. Eventually the plaything will kill the unfortunate creature it once enticed.

"I like watching them go," says Eric Galaktionoff, a 19-year-old member of the disentanglement team organized by the Pribilof Islands Stewardship Program. Muscular and quick, Eric loves to struggle with the big bulls. But the real payoff comes when a seal dives back into the Bering Sea, freed of its burden. "Once I cut a net off a bull with a deep, bleeding wound," remembers Galaktionoff, "but after I finished he didn't run away. Just looked in my eyes: I think he was thanking me."

Nature's caretakers

Crouching near Eric, Candace Stepetin, also 19, surveys the small team. Not long ago, she and several other young Aleut people joined Bruce Robson, a seal biologist from Seattle's National Marine Mammal Laboratory. The group was learning how to sneak up on unsuspecting seals and to herd them so every seal with debris around its neck or flipper could be spotted. Then those animals were caught with a noose pole and, if all went well, disentangled.

Not everything goes well. The first trips to the seal rookeries around the island seemed to drag. While Robson and Aquilina Bourdukofsky, who heads the Stewardship Program, scanned the coastline with binoculars and put together the equipment, the teenagers sat in the truck looking bored and disconnected. First attempts at teamwork were chaotic. Some seals were herded too fast and ended up panting from dangerous overheating; others slipped the nose and escaped. And no amount of care could save animals wounded too severely. One seal, with windpipe already severed by nylon monofilament, died after the team removed the debris.

Yet, as the foggy and cold summer went on, something shifted. The boredom began to fade, the equipment was assembled quickly, and the team fell into step. Early on, Candace was bitten by a seal and received nasty puncture wounds. But she summoned her courage and became a good, steady "nooser" who emerged as a natural leader. Encouraged by Robson, she took over the team.

Candace, Eric and other young stewards are Pribilof Unangan, Aleuts who live in the only settlement on St. Paul Island. They have considered themselves "brothers of the seals" ever since their ancestors arrived from Asia over the Bering land bridge, more than ten thousand years ago, and eased their skin iqyan (canoes) into the waters teeming with marine mammals.

Traditionally, Aleut hunters and fishermen were keen observer's of he sea's ice, its currents and wind, and the intricate patterns of animal migration. But today most young Aleuts, like Western children and teens anywhere, spend their days in school and are weaned on TV programs and computers. They are removed from their traditional role of nature's caretakers. Indeed, some of St. Paul's youngsters have been tearing across the fragile tundra in all-terrain vehicles, leaving litter and disturbing seal rookeries. They are only dimly aware of their spiritual and physical connection with the land and sea. Yet this connection is crucial if one day they are to make wise decisions concerning wildlife conservation policy on their island. …

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