Deadliest Catch Geography: THE PRIBILOF ISLANDS

 I don’t know how many Deadliest Catch fans were familiar with the Pribilof Islands prior to watching the show…I had heard of them but had no idea where they were or what they consisted of.  I’ve done a little homework and I’m amazed with what I’ve learned about these windy treeless little islands.  Besides being integral to our favorite fishermen in their work of catching and hauling crab, you may be interested to know that the Pribilof Islands are a happening place!  Please enjoy…

The Pribilof Islands are located in the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska.  They are 230 miles north of the Aleutian Island chain.  There are four islands in total plus a large rock.  St. Paul and St. George are the larger two.  The islands are completely open to the weather in the Bering Sea.  Trees do not grow because they cannot take root due to the almost constant wind.  There is a common saying on the islands: “This is the only place in the world where you can experience all four seasons in one hour.”

The islands include St. Paul (40 square miles), St. George (35 square miles), and two islets (Otter and Walrus islands) lying in the Bering Sea, about 300 miles west of the Alaska mainland and 240 miles north of the Aleutian Islands.  At one end of St. Paul, there is also Sea Lion Rock which is sometimes considered a 5th island of the Pribilofs.  They were formed millions of years ago by basaltic lava eruptions. (St. George at right)————————-

 When most people think of places one might consider as “exotic”, destinations such as Hawaii, Crete, Martinique, and the Florida Keys might easily come to mind, but the Pribilofs are very exotic as well if the abundant wild life that exists there is considered.(St. Paul at right).  They are often described as the “Galapagos of the North.” St. Paul is a top North American birdwatching destination in Alaska and not to be missed.

 St. Paul Island in Alaska’s Pribilof Islands is a summer breeding grounds for more than two million seabirds and almost one million fur seals. This spectacle draws naturalists and photographers from around the world. 

Between two and three million seabirds summer on the island of Saint George Island, most finding some cranny among the cliffs for nesting. There are good opportunities for bird observing and hiking. The community of St. George is located on the northeast shore of St. George Island, 47 miles south of St. Paul Island. More than 210 species of birds alone nest on the cliffs of St. George Island.

The list alone of unique animals in this area is amazing and to list them all would be impossible here…But this is an example: Horned and Tufted Puffins, Parakeet, Least, and Crested Auklets, Black and Red-legged Kittiwakes, Common and Thick-billed Murres, and Northern Fulmar (All birds of the Pribilofs and there’s approximately 225 species hanging out here).   Arctic blue fox, sea lions, whales, and reindeer may also be seen.

Horned Puffin – Alaska’s Bering Sea birds from the Pribilofs.


Red-legged kittiwakes enjoy a bath in a freshwater lake in the Pribilof Islands.
(Photo courtesy of:© Yva Momatiuk & John Eastcott/Minden Pictures ) 

An Arctic Fox.  In the Pribilof’s, these individuals spend alot of time climbing about the cliffs in search various bird’s eggs. 

Russian fur traders (Gavriel Pribylov) discovered the Pribilofs in 1786. In 1788, the Russian American Company enslaved Aleuts from Siberia, Atka and Unalaska and relocated them to the Pribilofs to hunt seals. Their descendants still live on the islands of St. George and St. Paul. 

St. Paul Island community in 1896 with a view of a Russian Orthodox Church in the background.

Today, residents are working to develop commercial fisheries and tourism. The St. George Aquaculture Assocation has begun programs for salmon and shellfish. Puffin Seafoods is a small halibut freezing facility that opened in 1998. Floating processors operate seasonally offshore. St. George.  Today, St. Paul is a port for the Central Bering Sea fishing fleet. Recent port and harbor improvements have stimulated growth in commercial fishing. Trident Seafoods established a crab processing plant in 1989. Unisea and Icicle process fish near the harbor and there are up to nine offshore processors that are serviced out of St. Paul.

One of multiple seafood processing plants at St. Paul Island

According to Trident Seafoods, …St. Paul operation is the largest crab production facility in the world. St. Paul is one of two Pribilof Islands which sit in the middle of the Bering Sea, approximately 600 miles southwest of Anchorage. The St. Paul plant concentrates production on a variety of Alaska crab species including king crab, snow crab and hair crab. The plant also processes halibut, cod, and other available species. Generally the facility remains open for four months out of the year and employs between 20 and 400 people.

All is not rosey in the Pribilof Islands however because protecting the diverse wild life is complicated.  Some might think that the increasing traffic from crab fishing vessels and the infrequent but lethal oil spills and leaks in the nearby Bering Sea is a large danger for the island animals, but the biggest danger by far is Rats!   Over the last two centuries, stowaway rats have colonized about 30 Alaskan islands, leaving a wake of empty rocks and silent shores once teeming with seabirds. Although the birds seek safety in numbers on the most remote and unreachable of islands, few have answers for a predator as athletic, brainy and famously fecund as Rattus norvegicus, the Norway rat.  Turned loose upon the sitting birds, the rats devour eggs and slaughter nestlings. Some 70 percent of all bird species (world-wide) that have gone extinct since 1600 were island species.  It takes work to keep that from happening in the Pribilof’s.

In the yet uninfested Pribilofs, the guard is up. On the docks of the St. Paul harbor, along the walls of the fish-processing plant, near the rocky rubble of the breakwater, wherever a landward rat with pioneering ambitions might scramble for first cover, there are traps—spring-loaded snap traps, and boxes and barrels baited with poison—checked by a phalanx of citizens, plant foremen and federal biologists. Roaming the port, inspectors expel ships deemed infested. Visiting captains leave with rat-prevention kits, containing a fact sheet, poster, video and more traps. When a ship inevitably wrecks upon the Pribilofs, there are two strike teams standing ready: one to surround any leaking oil or diesel with booms, another to stop rodents from spilling ashore.

Today, St. Paul and St. George constitute the largest Aleut community in the world, with hospitable people willing to share their love of the islands with visitors. Social life is community-oriented, with many time-honored Native and Russian traditions. Sounds like an interesting place to visit doesn’t it?


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3 Responses to Deadliest Catch Geography: THE PRIBILOF ISLANDS

  1. I use to live and work on the Pribilofs which are very cool! Key West, Hawaii, and Crete are merely on the way to somewhere. The lodging at ST George is wonderful. The chow available at St Paul Island is better. Go for it but no whining about cost!

  2. Great pictures and information. For more info on the Pribilofs, check out Alaska Sea Grant’s book “The Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands: Region of Wonders.”

  3. opilia says:

    Kathy, that book looks great. I’m going to go from being a Deadliest Catch fanatic to an All that is Alaskan one, I’m afraid!

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