St. Paul, one of the five small,
grassy islands of the Pribilof group. It is located in the
Bering Sea, about 300 miles west of mainland Alaska. The
island has rolling hills and steep sea cliffs, but the
islands hallmark is its black sand beaches that are, in
summer, fur seal territory.
(Photo by Megan Litwin). Click
image for a larger view.
Weather: The range of temperatures, year-round, is
between 19 and 51 degrees Fahrenheit. Average precipitation
is 25 inches of rain and 52 inches of snow.
Aleut oral history holds
that St. Paul was first discovered by Igadik, the son of
the chief of Unmake Island in the Aleutians. Igadik,
noticing that pregnant fur seals swam north and returned
later with their young, decided to follow their route by
kayak. Lost in a Bering Sea fog, he followed the sounds
of barking seals to the island. The Aleut named the
island Amiq, meaning "related land."
When Russian fur trader,
Garasim Pribylov, came upon the island group, he found
them uninhabited by people but teeming with fur seals. He
named the two largest islands after Saints Paul and
George, and the group after himself.
In 1788, the
Russian-American Company relocated enslaved Aleuts from
Siberia and the from Aleutian Islands to the Pribilofs.
Their descendants live there today.
The Alaskan Commercial
Company, which took charge of the Pribilofs after the
U.S. purchase of Alaska, created a share-cropping system
of sorts on St. Paul. Aleuts where required to hunt seals
in exchange housing, food and medical care. Alaska
Commercial Company officials were in control of virtually
every aspect of Aleut life. The races were strictly
segregated, Aleuts were not allowed to speak their
language or travel off the island.
In 1910, the U.S. Congress
passed the Fur Seal Act, and ended the private leases for
fur seals on the Pribilofs. The income from fur seals on
the Pribilofs had, by this time, surpassed the $7.2
million purchase price the United States had paid for
During World War II, the
United States relocated Pribilof Aleuts to an internment
camp in an abandoned cannery near Juneau, where they
lived for several years in squalid conditions. In 1979,
Aleuts received a reparation payment of $8.5 million for
the treatment they received before and during the war.
In 1983, Congress amended
the Fur Seal Act, and ended both the commercial fur seal
harvest and the government's presence on the island.
Subsistence harvesting continues to be legal.
Harriman passengers stopped
at St. Paul to see the fur seal rookeries and the North
American Company's harvest operation. Merriam, who had
visited the area only eight years earlier, was shocked at
the decline in seal numbers, and at the piles of skinless
seal carcasses left to rot on the beach. He had been
involved with the crafting of government regulations to
curb the reckless taking of the animals, but, after
seeing the conditions on St. Paul, he doubted these
regulations would do enough to protect the species. The
Elder's Captain, Peter Doran, suggested female
seals be branded, so that their skins would lose all
With the end of the fur seal
harvest, St. Paul was obliged to create a new economy
from scratch. With the help of some governmental
subsidies, the community improved its harbor, and
eventually became a port for the Central Bering Fishing
fleet. At the same time, two commercial companies, Icicle
and Unisea, established on- and off-shore fish processing
facilities. The fishing industry is now the basis of the
St. Paul is currently
promoting its small ecotourism industry. About 700
tourist visit every year, most to see the stupendous sea
bird populations. Over 200 species of bird can be found
on the island.
Many residents continue to
rely on the subsistence harvest of seal. The full
subsistence diet in the Pribilofs includes halibut, seal,
reindeer (a herd was transplanted to the to help feed
Aleuts), marine invertebrates, roots, greens and
The Norway rat is an example
of the environmental threats faced by this isolated
island community. The rat is currently unknown on the
Pribilofs, but as shipping increases, so does the threat
of infestation. Rats come ashore by way of gangplanks and
ropes tied to the dock. If the ship is sinking, the rats
swim. Once a few rats reach shore, a colony is quickly
established, and the animal population of the island is
David Cormany, who works for
the National Marine Fisheries Service on the Pribilof
Islands, says that he regards "the introduction of rats
to be worse than an oil spill. A rat infestation could
very well introduce diseases to the northern fur seals
here, and would certainly decimate the sea bird
population. The Pribilof economy is now built largely
around seafood processing. And with that seafood
processing we get a lot of vessel traffic which brings
the threat of rats."
Rat populations are very
difficult to eradicate, which means that if rats do reach
the Pribilofs, they will most likely be there for good.
That is why Pribilof Island officials have established a
campaign to keep rats off their shores. Ships with rats
cannot come within three miles of the harbor; traps and
poison have been set out in St. George and St. Paul at
points where the rat spill is likely to occur. Prevention
seems to be the key &endash; in New Zealand, scientists
have successfully gotten rid of rats on very small
islands, but on larger ones they are simply unable to
eradicate the tenacious rodents that threaten the native