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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), and can be viewed using free, downloadable software from 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.

NOAA created this product in partial fulfillment of a memorandum of agreement between it and the Alaska State Historic Preservation Officer.
Last update June 20, 2008