About the Site

Preserving the Legacy of the Pribilof Islands

The federal government’s legacy at the Pribilof Islands, Alaska, began with the purchase of Russian America from Imperial Russia in 1867. Enterprising American businessmen rushed to the Pribilof Islands in 1868 to exploit the Alaska Territory ’s most valuable and most easily exploitable natural resource known at the time, the northern fur seal (see Island Setting and Island Natural Resources). In 1869, the government deployed the military and customs agents to protect the islands’ Native inhabitants and the fur-seal herds. Congress mandated the islands a “special reservation for Government purposes.” In 1870, the government determined to treat the islands as a business monopoly, a paradigm that continued for more than one hundred ten years. Aleuts, indigenous to the region, provided the mainstay labor force just as they had for the Russians. They became wards of the government, and according to some, “slaves of the harvest” (see Island History). Their civil liberties would be compromised for more than eighty years (see Island Culture Today).

During the first forty years of the monopoly, several men became millionaires. One man, Gustave Nybom (a.k.a. Niebaum), went on to create his own dream, the Inglenook Winery, in California’s Napa Valley. In 1995, filmmaker and luminary Francis Ford Coppola and wife Eleanor reconstituted Niebaum’s Winery into the equally successful Niebaum-Coppola Estate Winery.

In a little over thirty years, following the United States' acquisition of Alaska, the government treasury received net revenues from the fur-seal industry that more than covered the $7.2 million purchase price of Alaska.

The value of the fur seals so enticed avaricious men during the Russian and American periods that land and pelagic harvests nearly exterminated the herd at least two times. The aggressive behavior of independent foreign sealers during the American period nearly erupted into military conflicts—one with Great Britain and the other with Japan. Great Britain deployed several warships to Victoria, British Columbia, and the Bering Sea to protect its pelagic sealers. Two decades later, a raid by Japanese sealers at St. Paul Island led to several deaths among the Japanese, and the Japanese government considered an appropriate response. Fortunately, diplomacy settled both potential military conflicts. The uncontrollable nature of the fur-seal slaughter also led at least two of the nation’s presidents, Ulysses Grant and Theodore Roosevelt, to consider deliberate extermination of the fur-seal herd. Ultimately, the history of conflicts and the continued decline in the fur-seal herd, led to the convention…for the preservation and protection of fur seals and sea otter which frequent the waters of the north [sic] Pacific Ocean. Lacking a formal or otherwise succinct title, the convention became popularly known as the Fur-Seal Treaty of 1911 (see Document Library). The convention among Great Britain, Russia, Japan, and the United States heralded a new era in environmental conservation with this first international wildlife conservation treaty.  

Just prior to the initiation of negotiations of a possible treaty to protect the fur seal, the United States government decided to assume full responsibility for the islands’ fur-seal business monopoly. During the previous forty years, the government granted two successive, twenty-year leases to operate the sealing business. Between 1870 and 1910 two firms, the Alaska Commercial Company, followed by the North American Commercial Company, managed the business, including managing the welfare of the Aleut Native inhabitants at the islands. The government administered the Pribilof Islands and managed the seal harvest from 1910 until 1983.

Many federal agencies controlled the Pribilof Islands between 1867 and 1984. The string of agencies began with the Department of War (1867); followed by the U.S. Treasury Department, Alaska Fur-Seal Service (1870); U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor (1903); U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Fisheries (1913); and the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Fisheries (1939). In 1970, the U.S. Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), assumed responsibilty from the U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service. NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service was the last federal agency to manage the Pribilof Islands and the fur-seal industry.

The National Marine Fisheries Service withdrew from the complete administration and management of the commercial fur-seal industry and the Pribilof Islands on October 13, 1983. At this juncture, the Aleut communities of St. Paul and St. George assumed full administrative responsibility for their respective islands. Also at this time, the condition of the islands’ environmental quality piqued the regulatory interest of the State of Alaska.

In the 1970s the age of environmental awareness took firm legal hold following the passage of the Clean Water Act. Environmental laws cast their shadow over the Pribilof Islands just as the government was about to withdraw from its domineering role (see Island Restoration). Decades of a government-controlled fur-seal industry compromised St. George and St. Paul Islands’ environmental integrity. While not complimentary of the islands’ management, it was not inconsistent with the times and even more typical of remote, inhabited island environments in a challenging climate (see Island Climate). Other environmental laws would follow and environmental restoration would be inevitable at the islands, resulting in this and other historical legacy products.

This historical legacy product provides an overview of the Seal Islands’ history, environs, natural resources, environmental contamination, and the islands’ culture. On this DVD, a multimedia approach with narrative, images, and video are used to convey the overview. A key feature of this DVD is the image gallery. It contains a collection of historical and modern Pribilof Islands maps, master title plats, paintings, sketches, and photographs from a variety of sources. The Document Library contains reports on NOAA’s cleanup activities, as well as copies of the mandates and agreements requiring these activities. Documents are in portable document format (PDF). The reference section provides citations for the works cited in the narrative portions of the DVD. Additionally, it illustrates the wealth of available materials documenting the Pribilof Islands’ history and natural resources. Users of this DVD may wish to refer to these for further information.

This project’s intent is to provide a cohesive collection of data and documentation in a manner that is informative, accessible, and visually appealing to a variety of users. Whether you live on the Pribilof Islands or thousands of miles away, we hope you will enjoy learning about these remote and unique islands of immense biological and cultural significance to the Aleut community, the state of Alaska, and the United States.

Click here for Publication Title, Credits, and Acknowledgements

NOAA created this product in partial fulfillment of a memorandum of agreement between it and the Alaska State Historic Preservation Officer.


Every attempt has been made to make this site compliant with Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Additionally, we have provided a link to a detailed Site Index on every page. This index provides a direct link to most pages in the site for simple text navigation. Pages that are not listed in the index are supplement pages in the education section that are enlarged views of images and illustrations in the educational tutorials.

Please notify us of any specific accessibility problems that you encounter, or any suggestions you might have on how we could improve the site's access. Please email these comments and suggestions to: nos.web@noaa.gov.

Editorial Policy

This site is managed by the National Ocean Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce. As a federal government site, all federal editorial policies apply, such as those on privacy, copyright, commercial promotion, etc.

Materials posted on this site are reviewed by NOS professional staff prior to publishing. Final decisions are made by the site's editorial board. All material on the site resides in the public domain and can be freely distributed. Use of appropriate photo and image credits is requested.

Technical Information

Access Time. Some pages on this site contain numerous images. The images provide necessary visual supplements for the text and enhance the visual appeal of the page. All images have been provided with captions to allow those users who cannot load images immediately to select specific images for viewing. Pages have been developed to load text first.

Links. Links are provided to many external Web sites, chiefly other NOS Web sites, as reference or supplemental material. External sites that are accessed by these links will launch a new browser session in a single, separate browser window. Each external site that is accessed will appear in this same browser window until the window is closed. A limited number of links to non-U.S. government sites are included. Users are notified that they are leaving a U.S. government Web site by a separate page that appears on screen for approximately 20 seconds.

Fonts and Type Sizes. Verdana is the default font for this site; 10 point is the default size. All browsers allow users to select specific fonts and type sizes for display. Some users select large type sizes for ease of reading, or specific fonts for personal tastes. The text and layout should not be adversely affected by a user's selection of alternative fonts and type sizes.

Printing Pages. This site has been designed to ensure simple printing. We recommend printing in landscape format at a scale of 100 percent. Printing in portrait format at 100 percent may result in some parts of the extreme right side of a page being cut off. For printing in portrait format, we recommend printing at a scale of 90 percent.

Downloadable Documents. Some documents are available on this site as downloadable files in Portable Document Format (pdf).

There are some known issues with downloading PDF documents, particularly on Windows systems, due to conflicting changes in the way in which Acrobat Reader and various browsers talk to one another. But there is a simple work-around: if you right-click (Windows) or option-click (Macintosh) on the link, the entire file will be sent to your machine, and then you can open it off your own hard drive using Acrobat Reader.

Navigation. Navigation through the site is straightforward. There are four levels of navigation. The first level is access to the major sections of the site is at the top of each page in two rows under the NOAA National Ocean Service (NOS) banner. Pull-down menus provide access to specific parts of those sections. The second level is in the right hand column which generally includes links to external NOS Web sites for complementary information. The third level is within-page navigation found at the top of some pages that includes links to sections within the page. The fourth level includes text links within page content. These links take the user to external links related to the topic of the page or to supplement pages within the NOS Web site.

Index and Search This Site. A link to the site index and the search box appear on every page. The Site Index is a complete listing of every page on the site and includes links to each of those pages. Search is a standard word/phrase search capability for all text and documents (pdf) on the site's pages.

Advanced Features. To view the videos, a T-1 or cable modem connection is highly recommended. For users with slower Internet connection speeds, smaller file-size and window-size versions of Wavebreaking News are available. Please be patient while waiting for the video to download.

For Further Information

For questions or comments about the technical aspects of this site, email: nos.web@noaa.gov. For questions or comments about the content on the site, email: nos.info@noaa.gov.