St. George, one of the Pribilof Islands, is sometimes described as the “Galapagos of the North”. The island is home to the Unangan people as well as some of the world’s most magnificent biodiversity and natural beauty.
Populations of Northern fur seals, Steller Sea Lions, otters, cetaceans and over 200 species of sea birds have long been a source of wonder and benefit to our community and visitors alike. The waters around St. George Island are also home to significant fish populations that provide prey for marine mammals, catch for fishermen and a crucial food source for the Unangan people of St. George.
A few key facts about St. George’s marine environment:
- Seals and sea lions: St. George’s highly attractive habitat is crucial for Northern fur seals and Steller Sea Lions, which are threatened or near-threatened species. About 50% of the world-wide population of Northern fur seals inhabit the Pribilof Islands during their breeding and pup-rearing seasons from June through November. Numbering in the hundreds of thousands, the adults produce over a hundred thousand pups annually at Pribilof Island rookeries.
- Seabirds: St. George and the Pribilof Islands provide essential breeding and rearing habitat for seabirds numbering in millions. Remarkable in their diversity, many of these non-resident birds arrive at St. George after having flown hundreds or thousands of miles from wintering habitat in Europe, Asia, remote Pacific islands and points south within the U.S, including sanctuary areas in California and Hawaii, making St. George’s seabird population globally significant. The seabird breeding colonies of St. George and the Pribilof Islands include globally- or regionally-significant aggregations of kittiwakes (red legged and black), thick-billed murres, parakeet auklets, northern fulmars, glaucous- winged gulls, fork-tailed storm petrels and red-phalaropes, sooty shearwaters, short-tailed shearwaters and the adjacent feeding grounds are used by the near-threatened Laysan albatross. St. George Island and its surrounding waters are recognized by the Audubon Society as an Important Bird Area, both for the large proportions of the global populations of some species that inhabit the area (e.g., kittiwakes and murres) and for their use by threatened or nearly- threatened species (e.g., the red-legged Kittiwake and Laysan albatross). The St. George colony supports approximately 75-80% of the global red-legged Kittiwake population. Adverse effects on any of these species within the Pribilof Domain may have consequences that extend far beyond the islands.
- Fish: The biologically rich waters around the Pribilof Islands contribute substantially to important Bering Sea commercial fisheries, including walleye pollock, Pacific halibut, snow crab and red king crab. Larvae and juveniles of these species rear in great numbers within the retention zone surrounding the islands, supporting the walleye pollock fishery along with local and regional fisheries for Pacific halibut, and red king and snow crabs. The fisheries for crabs and Pacific halibut are economically important for St. George residents and provide one of our few sources of cash income. Moreover, the Bering Sea, and the Pribilof Domain in particular, provides a reservoir of older female halibut that contributes disproportionately to the spawning biomass of the entire coast-wide Pacific halibut population.
This habitat, and the fate of the community of St. George, is now threatened. Marine mammal and bird populations have been in decline, as confirmed by both science and the day-to-day observations and experiences of our community. The waters around St. George and the Bering Sea face multiple stresses and additional threats are on the horizon as climate change progresses, sea ice recedes and international commercial interest in the Arctic grows. Conservation is urgently needed to protect St. George’s precious marine life, to build resilience against the consequences of climate change and to save our community.
In the face of these challenges, and to save their community, the people of St. George have submitted a nomination to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for the creation of the St. George Unangan Heritage National Marine Sanctuary. St. George’s nomination can be found here (see Inventory of Successful Nominations): https://nominate.noaa.gov/nominations/
The proposed Sanctuary encompasses a substantial portion of what is known as the Pribilof Domain (see Maps page), a biologically rich area at the heart of the Bering Sea “green belt”. The area is important habitat for globally significant populations of sea otters, orca, bowhead whale, grey whales, as well as for crabs and species such as walleye pollock and halibut. These species feed and mate in the Pribilof Domain and link geographically disparate places, such as California, Chukotka, Russia and Japan via their vast migrations. St. George’s habitats are especially important for the Steller Sea Lion and the rapidly declining Northern Fur Seal population. Sustaining these populations requires maintaining ecosystem diversity through protection of St. George’s wide variety of representative and unique habitats.
For additional information about National Marine Sanctuaries, how they differ from Marine National Monuments, the types of activities that are allowed in sanctuaries and how sanctuaries are designated, please go to the About National Marine Sanctuaries page.
The people of St. George
The ancestors of today’s St. George residents were among North America’s first settlers.
“Ancestors of the modern-day Aleut arrived in the Aleutian region thousands of years ago as sedentary hunter-gatherers with an almost exclusively marine orientation. The archaeological record shows that whales, sea lions, fur seals, sea otters, and walrus; fish such as salmon, halibut, codfish and herring; intertidal resources in the way of sea urchins, clams and mussels; and birds, eggs, and edible plants were (and are) found in abundance and supplied a broad diet ….A variety of harvesting techniques included the use of seafaring baidarkas [kayaks], harpoons, bows and arrows, spears, clubs, weirs, nets and fish hooks….While many fish and bird species were available on a seasonal basis only, many marine mammals and groundfish were available year-round. This abundant environment has strong implications for the political economy in that the same resources were available everywhere, and conflict and trade were never about gaining access to food.” – excerpt from Aleut Identities-Tradition and Modernity in an Indigenous Fishery, Katherine L. Ready- Maschner (McGill-Queens University Press, 2010)
In pre-contact Unangan culture and cosmology, the natural and supernatural worlds were a single, inseparable aspect of existence. The world was a place where all things—people, animals, places, oceans —had spiritual qualities and powers. Successful living required the Unangan to live in harmony within their spiritually based environment. This ancient and deeply held belief has extended forward through the cultural lineage of the Unangan of St. George and animates our desire to protect the natural world around us on which we depend materially and spiritually.
The connection between the island’s natural resources and the Unangan people changed in 1788, when Russian seal traders enslaved Unangan hunters, compelling them to travel seasonally to St. George to harvest seal skins for export. In the ensuing years, the communities of St. George and St. Paul were formed. Seal products from the Pribilof Islands eventually underwrote the economy of the territory and later the new state of Alaska. With passage of the Fur Seal Act Amendments of 1983, seal harvesting was finally banned on the Pribilof Islands. To compensate for this loss of livelihoods on the island, the United States government promised the Unangan people of St. George a sustainable, fishing-based economy that would provide a modern standard of living. Fish and crab quotas were allocated to our community, but the scheme didn’t work and our government’s promise of a modern standard of living was never fulfilled.
Today, the St. George economy and opportunities for traditional subsistence are greatly diminished and in steady decline as the island’s marine resource base becomes increasingly depleted. The fate of St. George’s Unangan community and cultural heritage is in grave jeopardy. Action is urgently needed to safeguard the community of St. George’s marine environment, cultural heritage and economy.