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Harriman Expedition Retraced



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Community Profile: St. Paul


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.

St. Paul

St. Paul (Photo by Megan Litwin).
Click image for a larger view.

Location: Lat. 57E 07' N, Long. 170E 16' W

Area: 113 square miles, 45 miles of shoreline

Population: 585

Industry: Halibut fishing, fleet services

Access: Air, water

Alaska Native Affiliation: Aleut

Alaska Native Regional Corporation: Aleut Corporation

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.

Historical Overview

  • 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 Alaska.
  • 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's Visit

  • 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 monetary value.


  • 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 Pribilof economy.
  • 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 berries.

Community Issues

  • 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 seriously threatened.
  • 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 species.

(View the St. Paul daily log entry)




For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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