“If we’ve lost the ice, we’ve lost the 2-degree water,” Michael Litzow, shellfish assessment program manager with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told me. “Cold water, it’s their niche—they’re an Arctic animal.”
The snow crab may rebound in a few years, so long as there aren’t any periods of warm water. But if warming trends continue, as scientists predict, the marine heat waves will return, pressuring the crab population again.
Bones litter the wild part of St. Paul Island like Ezekiel’s Valley in the Old Testament—reindeer ribs, seal teeth, fox femurs, whale vertebrae, and air-light bird skulls hide in the grass and along the rocky beaches, evidence of the bounty of wildlife and 200 years of killing seals.
When I went to visit Phil Zavadil, the city manager and Aqualina’s husband, in his office, I found a couple of sea lion shoulder bones on a coffee table. Called “yes/no” bones, they have a fin along the top and a heavy ball at one end. In St. Paul, they function like a magic eight ball. If you drop one and it falls with the fin pointing right, the answer to your question is yes. If it falls pointing left, the answer is no. One large one said “City of St. Paul Big-Decision Maker.” The other one was labeled “budget bone.”
The long-term health of the town, Zavadil told me, wasn’t in a totally dire position yet when it came to the sudden loss of the crab. It had invested during the heyday of crabbing and with a somewhat reduced budget could likely sustain itself for a decade.
“That’s if something drastic doesn’t happen. If we don’t have to make drastic cuts,” he said. “Hopefully the crab will come back at some level.”
The easiest economic solution for the collapse of the crab fishery would be to convert the plant to process other fish, Zavadil said. There were some regulatory hurdles, but they weren’t insurmountable. City leaders were also exploring mariculture—raising seaweed, sea cucumbers, and sea urchins. That would require finding a market and testing mariculture methods in St. Paul’s waters. The fastest timeline for that was maybe three years, he said. Or they could promote tourism. The island has about 300 tourists a year, most of them hardcore birders.
“But you think about just doubling that,” he said.
The trick was to stabilize the economy before too many working-age adults moved away. There were already more jobs than people to fill them. Older people were passing away, younger families were moving out.
“I had someone come up to me the other day and say, ‘The village is dying,’” he said, but he didn’t see it that way. There were still people working and lots of solutions to try.
“There is cause for alarm if we do nothing,” he said. “We’re trying to work on things and take action the best we can.”
Aquilina Lestenkof’s nephew, Aaron Lestenkof, is an island sentinel with the tribal government, a job that entails monitoring wildlife and overseeing the removal of an endless stream of trash that washes up ashore. He drove me along a bumpy road down the coast to see the beaches that would soon be noisy and crowded with seals.