The AMIQ Institute


Pribilof Islands

Helen D. Corbett and G.S. Winer
Encyclopedia of the Arctic (in press)

The Pribilof Islands, the fabled seal islands of the Bering Sea, are located in the south-central Bering Sea, about 482 km (300 miles) west of the Alaska mainland and 386 km (240 miles) north of the Aleutian Islands. The archipelago is comprised of St. Paul, with an area of 103.6 sq. km (40 sq. miles), St. George, 70 sq. km (27 sq. miles), and islets Otter Island, Sea Lion Rock, and Walrus Island.

The Pribilofs were formed as the result of eruptions of basaltic lavas onto the southern edge of the Bering Sea shelf. The eruptions that formed St. George Island began about 2.2 million years before the present and lasted until about 1.6 million years before the present. St. Paul Island was formed about one million years after St. George. The pulse of volcanism that formed St. Paul Island may not be over as a new radiocarbon date of 3,230 +/- 30 years has been obtained on the Fox Hill lava flow on southwestern St. Paul Island. The young date of this lava flow indicates that future eruptions may be expected on St. Paul Island. St. George Island, a faulted block of layered basaltic lava flows, has precipitous sea cliffs, reaching a maximum elevation of 308 meters (1012 ft.). The surface of St. George was smoothed by glaciers and its former cinder cones are now rounded hills. St. Paul, which has never been glaciated, has fewer coastal cliffs, more beaches, and numerous cinder cones that retain their steep slopes and sharp crater rims. Rush Hill, at 202 meters (665 ft.), is St. Paul's highest elevation. Scattered remains of mammoths have been found on the islands and fossil shells range in age from Pleistocene to Recent.

The islands are treeless and covered with lush grasses, dwarf willows, lichens, mosses and numerous varieties of flowering plants. There are no natural harbors on the islands and only a few fresh-water streams on St. George.

The climate is Arctic Maritime, with a range of mean temperatures of -7 to 11 degrees Celsius (19 to 52 degrees Fahrenheit), average precipitation of 558 mm (22 inches) and average snowfall of 1422 mm (56 inches). Heavy fog prevails during summer months. Coastal waters are open year round, and pack ice occasionally reaches the islands in winter.

Marine currents stir the shallow, nutrient-rich waters around the Pribilof Islands, accounting for the exceptional biodiversity of the region. Almost seventy per cent of the world's population of northern fur seals - approximately 800,700 animals - migrate each year to breed on the rocky shores of the Pribilofs. Vast colonies of seabirds (an estimated 2.8 million) nest on the islands, including thick-billed murres, common murres, least auklets, parakeet auklets, horned puffins, tufted puffins, black-legged kittiwakes and most of the world's population of red-legged kittiwakes. In 1984, the global importance of the seabird nesting sites earned them inclusion in the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. Over 220 species of birds have been sighted on the islands, migrating from as far away as Siberia and Argentina.

The Pribilof region is also home to Steller sea lions, harbor seals, whales, and many species of fish and shell fish. Terrestrial species include arctic fox, the endemic Pribilof Island shrew, and reindeer (introduced in 1911 from Unalkaleet, Alaska).

The Pribilof Islands were discovered in 1786 by Russian navigator Gavriil Pribilof, ending a three-year search by Siberian merchants for the breeding site of the valuable fur seals. The roaring of seals drew Pribilof's boat through the summer fog to St. George Island. The following year, Pribilof discovered St. Paul Island, 75 km (47 miles) to the north. The islands were uninhabited at the time of discovery, although Aleut oral history knew them as Amiq, a rich hunting ground visited by an Aleut chief lost in a storm.

The discovery of the islands extended the Russian-American fur trade for another 80 years. Sea otters had been hunted nearly to extinction, and the discovery of the fur seals' breeding rookeries brought a new source of wealth to Siberian traders. Aleuts were forcibly taken from the Aleutian Islands as seasonal laborers in the fur seal harvest, and by the 1820s, permanent settlements were created on both islands. Seals were ruthlessly killed until the Russian crown approved the Russian America Company as a licensed fur seal monopoly in 1799. By 1847, Russians had adopted conservation methods in harvesting seals, taking three- to five-year-old non-breeding males and prohibiting the killing of female seals.

After the 1867 sale of Russian-American territories to the United States, a series of monopolies continued sealing, often on an uncontrolled basis. Pelagic (high-seas) sealing further depleted the seal herds, and by 1910, the herd had been reduced to 250,000 animals. In 1911, the North Pacific Fur Seal Convention was signed by the United States, Japan, Russia and Great Britain (for Canada), prohibiting the killing of seals at sea. Under the treaty, the herd gradually increased, until it peaked at about 2 million animals by 1950.

Pribilof sealing generated large revenues for the U.S. Treasury after the government assumed responsibility for the seal industry in 1910. Total receipts from fur seal pelts surpassed the purchase price of the Alaska territories after only a few years. The Aleuts, however, did not thrive under government rule. They were treated as wards of the government, paid in kind for their work in the seal harvest, and experienced repression and discrimination by government agents. In 1942, the Aleuts were evacuated and interned in dilapidated fish canneries in south-eastern Alaska until the end of World War II, losing ten per cent of their population to poor living conditions, disease and malnutrition.

Exposure to the outside world led Pribilof leaders to sue the U.S. government for fair wages and individual freedoms, granted under the 1966 Fur Seal Act. The Aleuts gained more political and economic control with the 1971 passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Village corporations were established on St. George and St. Paul, and local governance grew to include city councils, school board, and tribal councils (established under the Indian Reorganization Act).

Animal protection organizations pressured the U.S. government to withdraw from the fur seal industry. In 1984, the government failed to ratify the international fur seal convention and commercial harvesting of seals ceased on St. Paul Island (sealing had ended on St. George in 1973). The Aleuts are allowed to take approximately 2000 seals every year for subsistence food. The Pribilofs adapted to the loss of the seal industry by entering the flourishing Bering Sea bottom sea fishery, attracting government and industry capital to develop harbors, processing facilities and vessel supply operations. The Aleuts achieved a rapid, successful transition to a day-boat halibut fishery. However, decades of intensive fishing in the Bering Sea, combined with climatic changes, have led to population declines in over 17 species of marine mammals, fish and seabirds. Fur seals are listed as a depleted species under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. A crash in the Opilio crab population has brought economic crisis to the Pribilof villages and in 2000, the Pribilofs were declared part of a federal disaster area. The bankruptcy of the airline servicing the Pribilof Islands has also made a small ecotourism industry much more vulnerable.

Today, the Pribilofs are home to the largest Aleut communities left in the world, with 800 of the remaining population of 3,200 Aleuts. The Pribilof Aleuts have survived many challenges over two centuries: forcible relocation, influence and culture of two colonial nations, loss of aboriginal subsistence skills to a wage-based industry, and suppression of their language, religion, political structures and human rights. A local cultural movement is successfully connecting young Pribilovians to the fur seals that so defined their island culture. Community leaders are working to diversify their economy so that future generations of Aleuts will continue to call these islands home.

Further reading:

Committee on the Bering Sea Ecosystem, National Research Council, The Bering Sea Ecosystem, Washington: National Academy Press, 1996

Corbett, Helen D. and Susanne M. Swibold, "The Aleuts of the Pribilof Islands, Alaska," Endangered Peoples of the Arctic: Struggles to Survive and Thrive, ed. Milton M.R. Freeman, Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2000

Jones, Dorothy Knee, A Century of Servitude: Pribilof Aleuts under U.S. Rule, Lanham, Md: University Press of America, 1980

Scheffer, Victor B., The Year of the Seal, New York: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1970

Torrey, Barbara Boyle, Slaves of the Harvest: The Story of the Pribilof Aleuts, St. Paul, Alaska: Tanadgusix Corporation, 1978

Winer, G.S., St. Paul Island, Pribilof Islands, Alaska: geology, volcanic evolution, and volcanic hazards, MS Thesis, Montana State University, Bozeman, Montana, 2001