For Native American Heritage Month, NOAA Fisheries celebrates the Indigenous scientists who help make our work in marine mammal conservation possible. The Tribal Government of the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island conducts high-level science and management of their marine resources. They work independently and in partnership with NOAA through a formal co-management agreement authorized by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
St. Paul is a small community of about 400 people located in the Pribilof Islands, 300 miles from mainland Alaska in the Bering Sea. Unangan—which means “The People of the Sea”— live on St. Paul, and neighboring St. George. Russian fur traders captured their ancestors from the Aleutian Islands and relocated them to the Pribilof Islands in the 1700s. They were enslaved there for the commercial fur harvest of laaqudan (the Unangam tunuu word for northern fur seals, pronounced “lah-koo-thawn”). Their deep cultural connection to and subsistence reliance upon laaqudan and other marine mammals, such as qawan (Steller sea lions, “ka-wahn”), has persisted for millennia and remains strong to this day.
Giving Laaqudan a Fighting Chance
The Tribal Government’s Ecosystem Conservation Office is dedicated to the conservation and stewardship of the vital marine resources upon which Unangan culture and subsistence depends. One ongoing aspect of their work is the disentanglement of laaqudan from marine debris. Laaqudan entangled in debris—such as packing bands and fishing net fragments— have been observed in the Pribilofs since the 1930s. Due to the islands’ location in the central Bering Sea and local current patterns, a great deal of marine debris accumulates both in the waters surrounding and on the Pribilof Islands. Animals may become entangled either near the islands during breeding season, or during their winter or spring migrations. Entanglement greatly reduces a fur seal’s chance of survival. It can restrict movement or cause injury as debris cuts into the skin over time, particularly for young animals that continue to grow after becoming entangled.
The Tribe’s disentanglement program began in 2000, but Tribal members have been involved in capturing and disentangling fur seals since the commercial harvest of fur seals ended on St. Paul in 1984. Three key members of the Entanglement Program team are Paul Melovidov, Dallas Roberts, and Aaron Lestenkof, all of whom are Unangan scientists born and raised on St. Paul. They disentangled 46 laaqudan in 2022 and 52 in 2023.
“Our current understanding of fur seal entanglement would be significantly lacking without the initiatives and efforts taken by the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island over the past 30 years—not to mention the good they have done for the hundreds of seals that have been disentangled,” said Mike Williams, Pribilof Islands Program manager for NOAA Fisheries.
Disentanglement work is highly technical, physical, and can be dangerous, and therefore should be left to trained, experienced, and authorized personnel. Laaqudan are very social and tend to gather in large groups when on land. This can make it difficult to isolate and capture an individual entangled animal to remove the debris. The Ecosystem Conservation Office conducts near-daily surveys for entangled animals in summer and fall.
If the team spots one, they assess the situation from a distance, then approach cautiously to avoid disturbing the herd for as long as possible. Once close enough to be noticed, they often have to race to stop the entangled individual from escaping to the sea. Part of this race includes assessing the laaqudan’s potential escape route. They also have to determine the best and safest way to respond while avoiding dozens, if not hundreds, of large subadult males bolting towards the ocean. It is a dangerous game of leapfrog that the team does not take lightly.
Once close enough, the team captures the entangled seal with a net or by looping long “noose poles” with a U-shaped rope at the end around its neck, taking care not to hurt it or restrict its breathing. Laaqudan have extremely sharp teeth and are very strong. For everyone’s safety, one or more people restrain the animal’s head while somebody else cuts and frees the debris. When possible, they tag its flipper to allow for future monitoring of its health and survival.
Once the response is complete and the laaqudan is released, Aaron, Paul, Dallas and their team never know for sure if it will survive, particularly if it has been entangled long or has deep wounds. However, their work gives these laaqudan a fighting chance, whereas remaining entangled is usually an eventual death sentence.
Their entanglement coordinator, Chelsea Kovalcsik, shares that "working with Paul, Aaron, and Dallas has been an immense joy in my life. They bring so much light and positive attitude to every situation; they also collectively bring decades of experience and knowledge that would be impossible to learn from a textbook. Their intimate connection to the seals is impressive in every respect—they can assess situations in ways I could never even think of. Paul knows exactly how the seals are feeling—when they are stressed, when they're relaxed, when we should approach or back off. Aaron always has a pulse on environmental conditions—which way the wind is blowing, if the seals will be able to smell us or sense us. Dallas has an impressive ability to navigate these haulouts, safe and agile, while being able to read exactly where the seals are going and how to intervene. This team is nothing short of impressive and I am truly honored to work with them, every single day."
Working Side by Side
Another of the Tribe’s conservation projects aims to improve our understanding of how disturbance (by people or natural events such as storms) affects laaqudan. Hanna Hellen (Tlingit), Environmental Program Manager, leads the project as part of her master’s degree through the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Tamamta fellowship program. The work is highly collaborative with NOAA Fisheries, as it uses the same Very High Frequency radio technology that we have used for nearly 10 years to monitor laaqudan for other studies. VHF radios send data about the duration of visits to shore by tagged laaqudan to nearby receiver stations. Tribal and NOAA Fisheries staff work together each fall to apply VHF tags to lactating female laaqudan on both St. Paul and St. George Islands.
Like disentanglement, tagging is physically demanding and technical work requiring great care to ensure the safety of researchers and laaqudan alike. Aaron, Paul, Dallas, and other staff also participate, contributing their years of experience and knowledge of laaqudan. Working side by side improves efficiency, and helps build strong camaraderie and working relationships between NOAA Fisheries and Tribal researchers.
Active laaqudan breeding areas are closed to the public by federal regulation. There is still occasional human presence through legally permitted or exempt activities such as scientific research, wildlife viewing, and Alaska Native subsistence use. These groups take measures to reduce the effect of their presence on laaqudan. However, it is important to continually assess and improve our understanding of any potential impacts.
Nursing females are studied because fleeing from disturbance could reduce their ability to feed and care for their pups. After tagging, Hanna analyzes the VHF data to analyze the movements of tagged animals within breeding areas. She also coordinates with researchers, tour groups, and subsistence users. They voluntarily enter information on their time spent in the breeding areas, using the Tribe’s Indigenous Sentinels Network mobile app. Comparing these data allows Hanna to identify instances when human presence matches up with tagged laaqudan fleeing from the beach, indicating possible disturbance events. Hanna also plans to examine potential disturbance to laaqudan by significant weather events, such as Typhoon Merbok, which led to a federal disaster declaration in 2022.
Hanna’s research will be invaluable for informing future management and conservation decisions by both the Tribe and NOAA Fisheries. She also inspires her colleagues with her passion, knowledge, and worldview.
Hanna’s colleague Chelsea Kovalcsik describes her as “a brilliant scientist who teaches me so many things every single day. She has an Indigenous perspective, always incorporating Indigenous Knowledge and different ways of knowing, while bringing her western educational background into the mix. She is a modern day Indigenous scientist and navigates those two worlds seamlessly. Every day I watch her bring both backgrounds together to solve a problem and I am constantly in awe of her dedication to herself and her roots, and her "formal" training. She is an incredible scientist and I look forward to continuing to work alongside her, learn from, and grow with her."
Today we would like to highlight the contributions of these four Indigenous scientists. Below, ECO team members share their own stories about growing up and how their work in environmental science is grounded in their local and Traditional Knowledge.
Meet Aaron Lestenkof, St. Paul Island Sentinel
My name is Aaron Lestenkof. I am Unangan from the Pribilofs and have lived on St. Paul Island my entire life. Growing up here I have always been interested in the wildlife we have, especially the fur seals that make St. Paul their home every summer. That led me to my first job with the ECO in the early 2000s working with a team dedicated to finding entangled fur seals and disentangling them.
After spending several years as a commercial fisherman, I started working for the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island Tribal Government as Island Sentinel in 2015. Island Sentinel remains my main role. Some of my duties are monitoring our shorelines for stranded marine mammals, working closely with our subsistence hunters to keep an ongoing record of Steller sea lion and northern fur seal subsistence harvests, northern fur seal disentanglement, marine debris cleanup, and invasive rat prevention, just to name a few.
To this day it is still such a rewarding feeling to free a fur seal from any type of marine debris.
Meet Dallas Roberts, St. Paul Island Sentinel
Aang! My name is Dallas Roberts, and I am 26 years old. I was born and raised here in St. Paul Island. Through my high school career, I spent 3 years with ECO as a youth hire and I loved every minute of it because we spent the majority of the time outside.
My main role at the Tribe is Island Sentinel. The duties that come with being an Island Sentinel are northern fur seal disentanglement, marine debris clean-up, invasive rat prevention, reindeer population counts, monitoring shorelines for marine mammal stranding, and working with our local subsistence hunters to monitor sea lion, northern fur seal, and reindeer harvests. We spend most of our summer doing fur seal disentanglements and that is really what motivates me to come to work every day. The feeling you get when you disentangle a seal is so rewarding.
The person who inspired me and influenced my career path is my uncle Paul Melovidov. He has been working with ECO since 2008. He has truly inspired me to be the best I can while at work and at home.
Meet Paul Melovidov, St. Paul Island Sentinel Coordinator
Hello, my name is Paul Melovidov. I am an Alaska Native Unangan born and raised on St. Paul Island. I started working for the Aleut Community of St. Paul Tribal Government in 2008 as a Sentinel and in 2010 all Sentinels were sworn in as Tribal Officers. As a Tribal Officer, I received a degree at the Tribal Probation Academy, which is about traditional, evidence, and victim-based Tribal Justice, and I also received course credit for study in Tribal Natural Resource Management.
My current position is Island Sentinel Coordinator. My main role is to advocate for our surrounding ecosystem by coordinating staff on environmental and wildlife projects (surveys, data collection, sampling, etc).
Prior to working for our Tribal Government, I worked for our native corporation (TDX Corporation - TDX Power Inc.) from 1998–2008. I managed and operated a wind/diesel generating system on St. Paul Island. My additional education includes 4 years in the Army and graduation from Wasilla High School.
My motivation to work is my concern for our wildlife and Unangan culture. I am inspired by people, places, and things in my community. My hope for the future is for Tribal Self-Governance and for St. Paul to be a self-sustaining community. Outside of work, I like hunting and gathering subsistence foods, biking, and photography.
Meet Hanna Hellen, Environmental Program Manager
I grew up in Anchorage and spent much of my childhood on the Kenai Peninsula outdoors with my family fishing and camping. I am of mixed Tlingit, Irish, and Finnish ancestry and am Gaanaxteidee from the whale house. I grew up with stories from my mom and grandma and was raised with traditional values and respect for land. I have always loved spending time outside and wanted to pursue a career that would allow me to work on the land and protect it.
I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Fisheries and Ocean Science from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and have recently returned for a Master of Science in Marine Biology as a fellow in the Tamamta program.
I have been working for ECO for 2 years, and my role has been focused on our Indian Environmental General Assistance Program and our co-management agreement with NOAA Fisheries. Through my work, I am able to spend my summer on St. Paul working on environmental monitoring programs and with the local northern fur seals. I feel honored to get to spend so much of my time working in a wonderful community and with the amazing team that we have at ECO. I hope to continue working with important subsistence species and doing research to protect access to these species that are so important to our ways of life. I also want to continue working with food security and traditional foods in Alaskan communities. Outside of work, I am a scuba diver and I spend my time hiking and skiing. I also enjoy reading and knitting or sewing from sustainable materials.