ST. PAUL, ALASKA -- No longer allowed to hunt seals, the natives of the Pribilof Islands are looking to the vast fishing grounds of the Bering Sea to revive a floundering economy.
The key to that revival is a new $58 million harbor that was dedicated in August.
"I wouldn't have come back before because it was so hard to find a job," said David Shane, a 23-year-old Aleut who left St. Paul as a teenager to finish his schooling. "The opportunities now are enormous."
Shane returned last year to work in St. Paul's new crab plant, in a building formerly used to process seal hides.
When federally managed seal hunting was halted here in 1985, Pribilof Island villagers were faced with building a new economic base or seeing their community dissolve.
Located in the heart of the booming Bering Sea fishing grounds, and closer to many of the stocks than bigger Dutch Harbor, St. Paul is betting its future on fishing.
The success of the new harbor depends partly on whether three local entities -- the city, the TDX Native corporation and the tribal council -- can cooperate on economic development.
But residents are optimistic.
"This has been a struggle for freedom and independence," said TDX Chairman Ron Philemonoff. "We are free, and with the harbor here, we will soon be independent -- financially independent."
Aleut seal hunters were settled on the Pribilof Islands forcibly by Russian fur traders in 1820. When the United States bought Alaska in 1867, the islands quickly were designated the nation's first wildlife refuge and the government contracted the seal harvest to private companies. In 1910, it assumed administrative duties itself, withdrawing in 1983.
The government banned commercial sealing in 1985 because of declining seal populations. It set up a trust to help islanders make the transition to an independent, harbor-based economy.
Alaska commerce commissioner Larry Merculieff of St. Paul said the islanders' seal-harvesting history denied them independence and unfairly saddled them with the blame for harming the animals.
"They labeled our gentle people as brutal, bloodthirsty," he said. "But we understand that the Aleut way is to produce answers, not tears."
During the harbor dedication, over the rumble of an idling motor of a visiting ship, Orthodox Bishop Gregory of Sitka blessed the harbor and the villagers, sprinkling holy water on the sea, dock and worshipers.
The new harbor is small -- about 10 acres of moorage and 300 feet of docks -- and can't accommodate ships longer than about 300 feet. Big factory trawlers will anchor outside and take skiffs in for supplies.
With its small clinic and airfield, St. Paul already was a temporary stop for some ships, which traveled on to Dutch Harbor to process their catch.
But Dutch Harbor, the nation's busiest fishing port, is swamped by ship traffic. It also is more than 20 sailing hours from St. Paul. And more ships keep coming.
An estimated 2.4 billion pounds of bottom fish, valued at $200 million, were harvested in the eastern Bering Sea in 1989, local officials said. Nearly 90 percent of Alaska's crab harvest, valued at more than $182 million, also comes from there.
Local officials expect 500 to 1,000 fishing vessels to call at St. Paul each year. Many processing and service companies are looking for a toehold in what some dub the "mini-Dutch Harbor."
Pribilof Islands Processors's crab plant already is operational and eventually could process 150,000 pounds daily. A $50 million surimi plant being built by Saint Paul Seafoods is set to open Jan. 1 with a capacity of 400 metric tons daily.
Surimi is a reconstituted fish paste that can take many different forms, such as fish sticks, imitation crab or fake lobster. It's a relatively new idea, cashing in on some generally unattractive fish, mostly bottom fish such as pollock. Japan imports a lot of surimi and a great deal -- particularly the imitation crab -- is sold in the United States.
"We're ready to come in -- we're just waiting for an invitation," said Dick Pace, president of UniSea, a Seattle fishing and processing firm building a $75 million surimi plant in Dutch Harbor.
UniSea wants to build at least one crab plant hiring 190 people in St. Paul, Pace said. But local officials say development has been slowed by disagreements between the city, TDX, which owns most of the land, and the tribal council.
"The city's been talking with virtually every major producer," said City Manager Vern McCorkle. "We're expecting them to take up additional negotiations with the village corporation."
A variety of Dutch Harbor service companies are looking at expanding to St. Paul, said Dutch Harbor Mayor Paul Fuhs, who has helped put together business tours to the smaller community.
Both communities' fates are closely tied to the fishing grounds, which some fear are in danger of being depleted.
When the 1976 Magnuson Act "Americanized" the fishery by creating an exclusive economic zone and extending U.S. jurisdiction to 200 miles off the U.S. coast, fishermen scrambled to fill the void left by foreign trawlers. An estimated 1,900 U.S. vessels operated in the bottom fish and crab fisheries off Alaska in 1989 -- more than 700 in the eastern Bering Sea, local officials said.
"This is an enormous resource -- the last of the great fishing grounds," Shane said.
And Paul Shebolin, a city worker carrying his 11-month-old son, Moisey, on his back, said change may be slow but it is inevitable. "This is going to be his home," he said of the baby. "We're building something for the future -- something the children can fall back on."