To call the small village of St. George, taking up just a corner of its namesake island in the middle of the Bering Sea, isolated doesn’t quite do it justice. Surrounded by water, the community has no harbor; it has a small airport, but weather often makes in impossible to land an aircraft. And when you can fly in, say from neighboring St. Paul, you have to wait a week for a return flight.
Prices are high, jobs are few, and despite being in the middle of the richest fishing grounds in America, the community sees little profit from it. But the Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association has put into motion a plan to hopefully reduce the isolation, lower prices, and bring some fishing dollars into town – with ferry service between St. George and St. Paul, 40 miles away.
APICDA’s CEO Larry Cotter said the project has been in the works for some time, but finding the right vessel was an issue. When one of APICDA’s own boats, the fishing vessel Atka Pride, was about to go up for sale, the decision was made to put it to work instead.
“Given the fact that we had the vessel and given the fact that the situation in the community is pretty darn desperate. Without a functioning harbor they’re having to fly all of their food into the community,” Cotter said. “Putting the vessel to work just made a lot of sense.”
Saint George Mayor Pat Pletnikoff says the ferry service will be a welcome addition to the island.
“It’s a small effort, but it’s huge in implication for what kind of service Saint George needs to survive. And we’re grateful to APICDA for that,” Pletnikoff said. “We’re grateful to APICDA for recognizing that Saint George deserves an opportunity.
Passage on the Atka Pride is $300 each way, but for Pribilof residents it’s $100, which Cotter says matches the one-way, once-a-week airplane fare. He says the total cost of the service for this summer is expected to be about $200,000, and he doubts it will break even.
A replacement wind turbine for the island is going up this summer to replace the unit that burned last year, so the ferry should get regular use. Pletnikoff says the 53-foot fishing boat will do for now, but if the experiment works, he’d like to see an upgrade:
“Once we’re able to develop an economy, we could certainly utilize the income to expand it and get better vessels to provide this service,” Pletnikoff said. “Ideally, a high-speed catamaran in the 58-, 60-foot range would be the most suitable vessel for our transportation needs, at least surface-wise.”
CDQ groups like APICDA have community development right in their name, and, according to Cotter, direct their Bering Sea fisheries quota profits to projects like this.
“You know that’s one of our responsibilities is to do what we can to help develop stable local economies,” Cotter said. “It’s not easy. But this is certainly in line with our purpose.”
Ferry service has already begun, and will go through the end of August. Cotter said if the program continues to run in the future, they’ll likely start in May and go into mid September.